Posted tagged ‘Martyrs’

St. Stephen, The First Martyr

December 26, 2008

Rembrandt's painting (1624) of the stoning of St. Stephen.

Today is the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  We know about him only from the account of his selection as a deacon and his death in Acts. Stephen was one of the first group of deacons appointed by the apostles (Acts 6:1-5).  We are told that he was performing signs and wonders and finding a receptive audience among the people of Jerusalem. This led to enmity on the part of certain gentile converts to Judaism who denounced him as a blasphemer.  In his defense before the elders, Stephen reviews salvation history from Abraham to Jesus and arouses the murderous anger of the assembly by concluding his defense thus:

 “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep. (NASB, Acts 7:51-60)

Here Stephen is receiving the martyr's crown.

Ruben's painting depicts Stephen receiving the martyr's crown. This is a portion of the whole painting which is part of a tryptych.

Stephen’s execution is also the first time we meet Saul who, we are told, heartily agreed with putting Stephen to death. This event marks the beginning of the first great persecution of the Church (Acts 8:1) which scatters the believers throughout Judea and Samaria. As a result, the Gospel was spread further, which was hardly the end Saul and the other persecutors desired.

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belevedere, California has a very nice summary of what we know about Stephen and how the Church subsequently viewed and honored him. From that site I learned that the medieval church made Stephen the patron saint of stonemasons and of headaches (!). I was reminded that, of course, the carol Good King Wenceslaus celebrates him. I also learned, finally, why our British brethren refer to Dec. 26 as Boxing Day.

St. Stephen was a popular subject for painters. There are a wealth of images, particularly Renaissance and Barock paintings, on the Internet. Usually Saul/Paul will be found depicted in them– he may be young, or bald and bearded (the way he was typically portrayed in art). He is often standing apart, as the account in Acts describes. This can be seen very clearly in the painting below:

Juan de Juanes painted this between 1560 and 1565. Saul is in the background looking on.

Juan de Juanes painted this between 1560 and 1565. Saul is in the background looking on.

If you would like to see more paintings of this or other biblical subjects, there are a great many sites you can visit. One such is Biblical art on WWW and it is an amazing resource. You can search for art by keyword (for example, bread), by subject (e.g. Ruth), by artist and by text. If you decide to search by biblical text, you will be presented with a list of the books of the Bible. When you find the one you want, click on it and then choose the passage that you are interested in. It is hard to imagine that there can be any painting anywhere that cannot be located through this site. Please take a look and, if you find anything really wonderful, let us know!