These three depictions of the Stoning of Stephen were all made within a span of about seven years. Raphael designed the Sistine tapestry in 1514, while in the same year Lorenzo Lotto was commissioned to paint the altarpiece with its predella, and Vittore Carpaccio was commissioned to paint his narrative cycle for the Scuola of St Stephen. He signed it in 1520. Yet despite their proximity in date, in all the images the relationship between the first Christian martyr and the future St Paul is depicted in meaningfully diverse ways.
In Lotto’s painting, Saul clearly ‘consents’ to Stephen’s death (see Acts 8:1). The scourge of the Christian community, vain and confident, this young man is still the antithesis of Paul. Lotto’s characterization of Stephen is equally distinctive. Instead of showing him in his deacon’s vestments, he emphasizes the parallels between his martyrdom and that of Christ. His nakedness here signifies virtue. The martyr raises his hands in the Western gesture of prayer rather than in the orant position more common in the Eastern Church. Saul and none of the other onlookers, including the lively dog, appear aware of Stephen’s vision, which is hidden within the clouds.
It is Raphael who brings Saul into the closest communion with Stephen. He also gives the greatest prominence to the vision of Christ and God the Father above, thereby preparing the viewer for the next scene represented in the tapestries, the dramatic Conversion of Saul, in which the flash of blinding light and voice from heaven knock the proud persecutor to the ground. Essentially, Raphael conceives the Stoning in terms of a conflict of the forces of good and evil expressed through the energy and emphatic gestures of his figures. Responding to the cacophony of voices mentioned in the text (Acts 7:57, 59), he turns up the volume to convey the rage and violence of Stephen’s assailants as they rush upon him shouting, and the saint’s response as he calls upon the Lord with a loud voice to forgive his enemies: ‘do not hold this sin against them’ (Acts 7:60).
Is it those words, Raphael’s image makes us wonder, that sow a seed in the hard heart of Saul and prompt him to stretch out his arms toward the martyr? No matter that the following chapter of Acts tells us that Saul ‘was ravaging the church’ (Acts 8:3) and became ever more ardent in his persecution of the Christians, for we have learnt to recognize that those in denial of their deepest feelings are often the most zealous and contrary.
In concentrating on the opposing forces of good and evil, Raphael glosses over many details in the account of Stephen’s martyrdom and the oration that provoked it. Like Raphael, Carpaccio envisages Saul’s witness of the stoning as a turn towards the light adumbrating his future conversion, but is more attentive to the backstory in picturing how the martyrdom unfolds. As an artist living in the cosmopolitan city of Venice, home to many foreign communities of merchants, entrepôt on the Silk Road, and point of embarkation for pilgrims to the Holy Land, Carpaccio was well equipped to respond to the Acts of the Apostles as canonical account of the spread of the Gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike. In his attention to the variety of racial types, the Venetian artist picks up on the passage in Acts 6:9 which relates that Stephen’s audience and accusers ‘belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen … and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia’.
Carpaccio was more skilled at depicting light as spiritual metaphor than showing figures in motion, and his Stoning of Stephen has been criticized for appearing static. Yet this sense of freeze-frame, of movement interrupted, suggests rather dramatically that several witnesses, like Saul himself, pause astonished by Stephen’s prayer asking the Lord to forgive them. Some of their number, like the Christian converts that Carpaccio encountered in Venice, turn towards the light; others turn away. Figures awkwardly turning become an effective metaphor for spiritual conversion or its rejection. By hinting at what is to unfold in Paul’s life and lead to his own martyrdom, Carpaccio’s painting involves us as active witnesses, and invites us to ponder our own response to Stephen’s imitation of Christ’s sacrifice.
With their contrasting interpretations of the narrative of the first Christian martyrdom, all three paintings suggest to the viewer that the path to the enlightenment of faith is always challenging and full of unexpected reversals.
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.