Lorenzo Lotto, a painter with a sharp eye for distinctions of dress, explores the significance of the Stoning of Stephen by contrasting clothed and naked figures.
On the right, the executioners act out a parody of the then recently discovered sculpture of the priest Laocoön and his sons, but unlike their classical models they are clothed. Lotto depicts Stephen kneeling on the ground, naked save for a red mantle, and behind him places a smartly dressed young man taunting the saint, a motif which recalls the stripping of Christ, the laying upon him of the scarlet robe, and his mocking (Matthew 27:28–30), and which reminds the viewer that Stephen in his martyrdom shares in the Passion of his Saviour.
A little behind the stoning itself, an elegant figure clad in tight-fitting hose, tunic, and hat of immaculate whiteness must be Saul, even though the clothes of ‘the witnesses’ that were laid at his feet are absent (see Acts 7:58). His cocky stance and prominent cod-piece are striking in the light of Paul’s later castigations of the sins of the flesh. His fashionable costume contrasts with the undress of the proto-martyr and the nudity of the soldier in the foreground, who whispers to his companion in armour. Such pictorial antitheses of foppish dress, nakedness, and armour may presage—not without a touch of irony on the artist’s part—Paul’s exhortations in his Epistles to ‘put on the whole armour of God’ (Ephesians 6:11; cf. Romans 13:11–14) as defence against sin and the devil. Since Lotto’s small panel belonged to the predella of an altarpiece commissioned by a soldier and painted in a period of almost incessant warfare in northern Italy, an allusion to Paul’s martial metaphor would have resonated with contemporary worshippers.
Today, when we are so often tempted to clothe ourselves with the vanity of worldly possessions, the painting may invite us to consider where true righteousness lies.
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.