The Stoning of St Stephen by Worshop of Pieter van Aelst, from cartoon by Raphael

Workshop of Pieter van Aelst, from cartoon by Raphael

The Stoning of St Stephen, 1517–19, Tapestry, 450 x 370 cm, Musei Vaticani, Vatican City, MV_43871_0_0, Alinari / Art Resource, NY

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The First Christian Martyrdom

Commentary by

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 seriesThe Conversion of Saul, it is this future St Paul whose arms will be outstretched and raised towards Christ.

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