The Stoning of Stephen, woven by Pieter van Aelst and his assistants after a cartoon (or full-scale drawing) by Raphael, belongs to a set of tapestries commissioned by Pope Leo X to hang on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Installed on special feast days, these tapestries depict the stories of Saints Peter and Paul as related in the Acts of the Apostles. Bearing in mind this context, Raphael conceived the Stoning of Stephen primarily as the first scene in the story of Paul, rather than the last in the short ministry of Stephen.
In a packed composition of figures charged with physical energy, the angry audience of Stephen’s oration pick up stones ready to cast at him. The youthful saint has dropped to his knees in prayer and stretched wide his arms in a gesture of acceptance that recalls the outstretched arms of the Crucified Christ. Above, in the direction of the source of light, the martyr sees a vision of ‘the Son of man standing at the right hand of God’ (Acts 7:56). Here Christ, like Stephen, opens his arms in a wide embrace, and—in a significant detail—two angels part the clouds, one gazing back towards Christ and God the Father, the other looking down towards Saul seated below. The clothes of ‘the witnesses’ (see Acts 7:58) lie at Saul’s feet.
Beardless and still with a full head of hair, the young Saul responds to the youthful Stephen’s outstretched arms by reaching towards the martyr with open hands. His feet are bare and his left knee is bent in a pose almost like genuflection: as the site of the first Christian martyrdom this is sacred ground. In the next tapestry in the series, The Conversion of Saul, it is this future St Paul whose arms will be outstretched and raised towards Christ.
51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; 56 and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
8 And Saul was consenting to his death.
And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samarʹia, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.