Vittore Carpaccio’s Stoning of Stephen is the final canvas in a narrative cycle of the saint’s life that was commissioned by the Scuola of Santo Stefano in Venice—a confraternity combining devotional, festive, and philanthropic functions.
In all the scenes, beginning with his consecration as deacon, Stephen is shown wearing his liturgical vestments. In the Stoning he kneels close to the right margin, vested in a dalmatic of red and gold over his white alb, with a maniple hanging from his wrist. Seen in its original location to the left of the altar, Stephen’s celestial vision would have appeared to hover above the altar where deacons assisted in the celebration of Mass for members of the confraternity.
Carpaccio sets the scene in a spacious landscape. Jerusalem on the hill to the left is shadowed by cloud, while sunlight bathes the upturned face of Stephen to the right. Turbaned figures process through the walls of the city towards the foreground, where Stephen’s audience is gathered. Carpaccio depicts them as varied in skin colour and costume. They turn towards each other, some perhaps enraged by Stephen’s earlier speech in which he had proclaimed Christ as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets (Acts 7:2–53), others by his declaration that he could see ‘the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God’ (Acts 7:56). At the centre of the group the High Priest with long white beard looks on, stern and impassive.
Seated on the ground and hemmed in at the left corner, we discover the figure of Saul wearing the fancy scarlet hose and expensive tunic typical of the youthful patricians of Venice. Just like Stephen, he lifts his face towards the light and directs his gaze towards the same vision. A red mantle lies at his feet, and he raises a green one towards his beard. Together, Saul’s upturned face and mysteriously raised cloth suggest dawning enlightenment, albeit still mixed with incomprehension. A standing figure behind Saul, perhaps his alter ego, bears the large sword that will be the attribute of the Apostle Paul.
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.