Frescoes of Paul’s Ministry, Part 1: Stoning of Saint Stephen

Martyrdom of St. Stephen, Pietro Gargliardi Acts 7:54-8:1

Martyrdom of St. Stephen, Pietro Gargliardi, Acts 7:54-8:1

Acts 7:54 – 8:1

When they heard this (Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin recorded in Acts 7:1 – 53), they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.  But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of god, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  “Look,” he said ” I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.  Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  They he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  When he had said this, he fell asleep.

And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.

P1020183

Stephen is the central figure, his light yellow cloak brightly illuminated from the opening in the clouds.  The golden glow from this opening contrasts to the shadows the darkened Jerusalem in the background.  From this light flies an angle, holding a palm branch, while a cherub rests on the edge of the cloud, holding a halo.  This is not what Stephen described when he looked up to heaven, and what tipped the crowd to stoning him.  While they were enraged already by his connection of Jesus to prophetic scripture, his claim that he was seeing, and his challenge to them, “Look,…” for them to also see, Jesus sitting at the right hand of God.  This was blasphemy, deserving of quick death.

Interestingly, in the verse that follows, the members of the Sanhedrin are not described as not seeing, but as covering their ears.  Does this suggest that they did see but refused to acknowledge, or that they did not see and refused to listen to someone who did see clearly?

However, this was not a mob action only.  First, they took Stephen out of the Sanhedrin and the city.  In Roman territories, executions and burials occurred outside the walls of the city (remember that the church in which these frescoes are painted is “Outside the Walls” too).  Thus, the mob was orderly enough to follow law and custom.  Also, a member of the Jewish ruling class, a Pharisee, Saul was overseeing this stoning.  And, he gave his approval.  Saul, in a red cloak, stands uphill and behind Stephen.  Men in the mob roll up their sleeves or remove their cloaks to place at their feet, while they go about their task.

Stephen has his hands raised, not to deflect the blows of the stones, but in forgiveness.  Just as Jesus forgave the Romans and Jews who crucified him, Stephen sets an example for other Christians and Saul.

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About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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6 Responses to Frescoes of Paul’s Ministry, Part 1: Stoning of Saint Stephen

  1. jane arney says:

    Do you know the artist and time period of the frescoes?

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Jane,

      One phenomenion that amazed me and frustrated me about vising churches in Rome was trying to find information on the 2nd tier art work. Of course the paintings and sculptures by Michelangelo and Carravigo received lots of signage and catelogue descriptions. But, then I would look for information on some frescos or relief sculptures on the walls to only find brief mentions or nothing.

      Regarding the 36 frescos that I am writing about, this is all that I found, not even in the guide book for St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, but in a separate book on the major basilicas of Rome:

      “Underneath, betweent he windows flanking by pilaster strips with Corinthain Capitals, alternate wall paintings with Stories from the Life of Saint Paul. The 36 frescoes, illustrating stories from the Acts of the Apostles, were commissioned by Pius IX, 1857 to replace other paintings, of much higher quality, by Pietro Cavallini, which were destroyed in the fire or removed by Pasquale Belli in 1828. The work was concluded in only three years by a group of twenty-two artists, among whom the best knowns was Franscesco Podesti (1800-1895).”

      That lack of information about these frescos is part to what motivated me to read The Acts of the Apostiles to identify each, then start writing about them (that process took about 6 months).

      In the meantime, I eventually found one website that listed each painting’s title and artist.

      http://romanchurches.wikia.com/wiki/San_Paolo_fuori_le_Mura

      I felt assured that I was on the right track there.

      I have included the title of each fresco, the artist’s name, and the chapter and verse reference in the caption of the first image of the fresco on my blog.

      Happy Art History hunting.

      • jane arney says:

        If you have access to J-Stor I’d recommend a search there and also in an academic library catalog. There is probably also some Italian archive with information on the commission. These are some of the tools of art historians.

      • hermitsdoor says:

        Thanks. My archeological tools are pretty basic, though I did recently dig up an actual fossil in my yard recently. I’ll check into J-Stor. As for Italian reference, I’m reading Plutarch in English translation. I’m all the way up to Marcus Anthony, mainly because we saw Anthony and Cleopatra last Fall, and Julis Cesear yesterday. The same theatre will do Coreolanius next year. Guess that will not make it back to the shelf in the near future.
        Oscar

  2. jane arney says:

    I would guess there are a few reasons for the lack of information on these: Italy has such an ’embarrassment of riches’ when it comes to art in churches. there is just so much there. Also, remember that churches were not designed to be museums but houses of worship. Although many have made significant efforts to educate visitors about the art contained therein, it would be difficult to have didactic materials for every single object, so there must be some discrimination. As you noted, the works by the best artists are described. These paintings you feature, while lovely, are from a time period not really celebrated for high quality religious art, and your quote notes that they replaced higher quality works that were lost. This was the time of the beginning of Modernism, when artists began boldly experimenting, painting every day life, working people, etc. and religious subjects generally fell out of favor.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Of course, I have the same criticism of art museums which give me scant information about much of the art, but then I recognize that I am approaching the art from a different level of interest from the average guest. Thus, I purchase AND READ the exhibit catalogues. 🙂

      Regarding my series on the fresco’s at St. Paul’s, maybe I shall fill in the lack of information for someone else.

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