My namesake was killed in roughly 35 A.D., when he was only about 29. Stoned to death for his faith, he became the Christian protomartyr. Although I admire him for his unwavering courage and his unflagging devotion to his beliefs, I often fail in attempts to emulate him: When the world starts throwing rocks at me lately, I’m tempted to rifle them back. Nevertheless, my connection to St. Stephen inevitably pulls me into churches dedicated to him, whether it’s the magnificent St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna or a humble parish church, and into places like museums that house artistic works portraying Stephen in a variety of media. I always pop in to see how artists treat the first person to surrender his life for Christ. These are my favorites.
#1 National Gallery of Antique Art (Rome, Italy)
I strolled into the Trastevere neighborhood in Rome via the Sisto Bridge over the Tiber River. Removed from the tourist-laden sites in other parts of the Eternal City, Trastevere has a more relaxed, artsy vibe, with craft beer pubs, creative trattorias, and artisan shops. It’s not devoid of wonderful sites, however, and I passed through one of them, a gate from the third century, on my way to another, the baroque Corsini Palace, built in 1740 and once the home of Queen Christina of Sweden after she abdicated. Today, it houses the National Gallery of Antique Art. Up a long flight of stairs, I entered the museum and began to marvel at magnificent art by the likes of Caravaggio, Rubens, and dozens of others I’ve never heard of but deserve to be household names. One of those artists is Francesco Trevisani, an Istrian-born son of an architect, who painted Martyrdom of Saint Stephen circa 1700. In this masterpiece, Stephen has fallen to the ground, wearing a golden dalmatic over a long white alb. Around him, his shirtless murderers are about to stone him to death, but not with some little stones and pebbles. Even these muscular men need two hands to lift the giant rocks that will end Stephen’s life. Yet Stephen seems unfazed by his imminent death. With arms wide open, he appears to welcome the onslaught. But, then again, as he looks upward into shafts of light shining down on him, he may be gesturing his purity toward the cherubim in the sky above as they are about to receive him into heaven. One is ready to offer him a palm frond—a symbol that the person died the death of a martyr—and another holds a laurel wreath, ready to crown Stephen for his entry into heaven and victory over nonbelievers. What’s most curious about the entire painting is the very faint, barely noticeable white halo around Stephen’s head. It’s not a full-blown nimbus that symbolizes sainthood but rather just the traces of one about to form, capturing the exact moment when Stephen is about to go from an ordinary human to an extraordinary saint.
#2 Kadriorg Art Museum (Tallinn, Estonia)
I was spending a full day in Kadriorg Park, a short tram ride away from my hotel in Tallinn’s Old Town. This extremely pleasant green space of about 170 acres that constituted the grounds of the Palace of Peter the Great has been open to the public since 1718. The park is chock full of beautiful attractions—museums, cafés, a rose garden, pond, the summer cottage of the czar and czarina, a gorgeous Japanese garden, and the centerpiece of it all, Kadriorg Palace. This grand Baroque structure now houses the Kadriorg Art Museum, the only museum in Estonia dedicated to foreign art. Amid the grandeur of the palace and the museum’s collection of 9,000 works, I found The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen. The scene is quite similar to Trevisani’s in Rome. Both have Stephen on the ground, wearing nearly identical deacon’s garments, with arms outstretched and face turned upward, and being attacked by his stone-flinging executioners. But this one, by an unknown artist, throws in a couple of differences. While the city background and sky in Trevisani’s version are dark, this one employs more light, creating a pleasant city scene, with valleys, mountains, and buildings, and a blue sky with innocuous clouds. This Stephen has already been struck—a splotch of blood appears on his forehead. He, too, pays no heed to his persecutors, intently focused on what none of the other figures see: an angel flying down to him with crown and palm frond, and a celestial gold orb of heaven in the parted clouds, populated by a few angels, Jesus, and God Himself.
#3 Church of St. Jeremiah and St. Lucy (Venice, Italy)
It wasn’t particularly surprising to me that the city that rewarded me with one of my top depictions of St. Mark (my confirmation name) would also give me one of my first name. In a city crowded with churches (137 of them), one more beautiful than the other, it was easy for me to step into these houses of worship without going very far along Venice’s watery passages. Close to the train station that brought me into the city in one of the world’s best arrivals, the Chiesa di San Geremia e Santa Lucia faces an open campo and can be seen from the Grand Canal. The church dates from 1753, although its brick tower goes back to the 12th century. Inside, I found the longest chandelier chain I’ve ever seen—as well as the mummified corpse of St. Lucy, enclosed in a glass coffin and lying here since 1860, an incredible 1,556 years after her martyrdom. I also found the painting depicting the martyrdom of St. Stephen. In this work, created with bold, almost garish and violent colors, the scene occurs outside the walls of a city of simple white boxlike houses with slanted red roofs. Stephen is on his knees, clad in the typical dalmatic and alb, with his arms slightly bent, hands gently raised, in a half-hearted attempt to ward of his assailants, as if he’s merely refusing a second serving of tiramisu. A mob surrounds him, at least six of whom clutch rocks above their heads, about to launch them at him. The figures in this painting diverge from the usual—four men off to the right (one most definitely African) don Indian turbans; to the left, a woman wearing a fez and veil stands next to another covered almost entirely in what looks like a red burka, with just a tiny opening for her eyes. Above the chaos, in a golden opening in the clouds, Jesus, with arms outstretched (and God’s face above) and in the company of Mary and a dozen other figures, sends down a dove toward Stephen.
#4 Cologne Cathedral (Cologne, Germany)
On my last day of a weeklong jaunt around the Christmas markets in Germany, I headed to Cologne to shop and eat my way through three markets as well as the gift shop at the Chocolate Museum. But, first, as soon as I arrived, I stepped off the train from Frankfurt and entered the platz dominated by the gargantuan and utterly gorgeous Cologne Cathedral. Begun in 1248 and not completed until 1880 (and a dramatic survivor of World War II bombings), it’s the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe, occupying a whopping 85,186 square feet. Within its walls, you can find incomparable mosaic floors, the largest choir stall in Germany, and more than 107,000 square feet of windows, including stained glass from as far back as 1265. Their intense colors, like precious gems, add colorful intensity to the cathedral. Among the many scenes depicted, I found St. Stephen being stoned in a blaze of vibrant colors. Here, Stephen, clad in red, green, gold, and white, and wearing a fuchsia slipper that looks like it’s straight out of the wardrobe department of Aladdin, lies on the ground. With his eyes closed and a halo already circling his tonsured head, Stephen may have already succumbed to his torturous fate, although there are no signs of bruising or blood. If not, then the two figures looming above him, with rocks raised above their heads and some serious concentration on their faces, are about to end his life. And in case they don’t finish the job, the creepy bearded and bald old man in purple crouching behind the two and picking up a rock seems sure he’d be able to. The dichotomy between the lush, cheerful colors and the savagery of the scene makes this depiction of St. Stephen a true standout.
#5 Basilica of St. Stephen in the Round on the Celian Hill (Rome, Italy)
One of my favorite churches in Rome lies far off the radar. Tucked behind high walls, La Basilica di Santo Stefano is neither one of city’s grand churches nor one that attracts many out-of-towners—there were only two other people there while I was visiting. It’s an ancient place, going back to 470, and was the first church in Rome with a circular plan. Despite its being off the beaten path, I knew I had to visit the church dedicated to both St. Stephen the Martyr and St. Stephen of Hungary. The interior is fairly plain, but I was compelled to see it, mostly for its riveting collection of gruesome frescoes. Pope Gregory XIII commissioned a cycle of 34 frescoes during his papacy (1572–85) (as well as the Gregorian calendar we still use today) to be painted on the interior walls of the circular church. In recognition of Stephen as the first martyr, all of the frescoes fell under one theme: “Tortures of Martyrs.” Each painting shows one to three scenes of early Christian martyrs being killed, with a titulus underneath providing an explanation of the scene (marked A, B, and C painted into the work itself), a Bible quote, and the name of the emperor who ordered the execution. Who’s being boiled in a pot, who’s being decapitated, who’s being fed molten silver, or having their tongue or hand cut off, or being racked or pitchforked. It’s bloody and weird and fantastic, so much so that Charles Dickens wrote, in his Pictures from Italy (1846), that the frescoes were “a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep.” Given that, St. Stephen gets off relatively easy here. There’s no blood or gore for him—his three assailants, with oddly muscular calves and curly, fair locks, are about to stone him as he falls to his knees and looks skyward, with a thin transparent halo around his head, arms open in supplication for God to forgive his killers, and some extra gray rocks nearby, just in case the white ones already in play aren’t enough.
- Stained-glass window (Church of St. Paul’s Within the Walls, Rome, Italy)
- The Stoning of Saint Stephen ivory and bone plaque (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland)
- Stained-glass window (St. Joseph Cathedral, Buffalo, New York)
- Stained-glass window (St. Mary’s Cathedral, Auckland, New Zealand)
- Saint Stephen limewood sculpture, by Hans Leinberger (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York)
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