Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen


The Stoning of Saint Stephen

Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610). The National Gallery of Scotland – Edinburgh. Ca. 1603-1604.

Stephen was one of the Deans of the first church. The ‘Acts of the Apostles’ gives an account of his election, which recalls the first disputes among Jewish members and non-Jewish members of the early community. The Acts explain how the apostles solved the issue, and thus also give account of the first separation between the worldly and the spiritual organisation of the church.

When the number of the disciples was increasing, the Hellenists made a complaint against the Hebrews: in the daily distribution their own widows were being overlooked. So the Twelve called a full meeting of the disciples and addressed them. “It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to give out food; you, brothers, must select from among yourselves seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom, to whom we can hand over this duty. We ourselves will continue to devote ourselves to prayer and to the service of the word.” The whole assembly approved of the proposal and elected Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolaus of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these to the apostles, and after prayer they laid their hands on them G38 .

Stephen preached and began to work miracles. He had great wisdom and the Jews of the synagogue could not stand up to him. The elders and scribes took Stephen by surprise and brought him before the Sanhedrin. In the Sanhedrin he continued to give a speech and threw at the priests that there was not one prophet their ancestors had not persecuted.

They were infuriated when they heard this, and ground their teeth at him. But Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into the heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. “Look! I can see heaven thrown open,” he said, “and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” All the members of the Council shouted out and stopped their ears with their hands; then they made a concerted rush at him, thrust him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses put down their clothes at the feet of a young man, called Saul. As they were stoning him, Stephen said in invocation, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and said aloud, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And with these words he fell asleep. Saul approved of the killing G38 .

Adam Elsheimer made a picture of the ‘Martyrdom of Stephen’. Stephen was a Dean of the church and also the very first martyr to die for his faith. Stephen is seen knelt, at the moment when he invokes Jesus to receive his spirit. At the same time the executioners throw the stones at him. They have indeed taken off their garments as told in the New Testament. One young executioner at the right of Stephen will thrust the stone onto Stephen’s head that will kill him. Such men who hold stones in their hands surround Stephen, but no actual stone is seen hitting the martyr. This is the moment before death. Stephen looks somewhat naively, with open mouth, and in surprise at the scene that plays above him. God has sent his angels to get Stephen to the heavens. A shaft of light has broken through the clouds and this cone of God’s light envelopes Stephen and the angels. The angels have brought laurels to honour the Dean. Roman soldiers are seen in the background. But also oriental viewers have arrived, as on the left, the normal witnesses of death of Christians in the times of Elsheimer.

Adam Elsheimer was a German painter. He only painted for a period of about thirteen years and only twenty-seven pictures are known of him. He worked almost exclusively on copper; hence his pictures remained of small dimensions. But copper was a marvellous substrate on which to paint. Thus, Elsheimer was able to bring more than fifty figures on this miniature-like plate. Copper allowed to apply paint in very fine strokes, so that detail could be elaborate. Elsheimer also exploited fully the medium to chose very brilliant colours.

Adam Elsheimer came from Frankfurt. He was born there in 1579. He first worked with Dutch painters who had left Catholic Antwerp for Protestant Frankfurt, then in 1598 he travelled to Venice where he worked with another German painter who worked on copper, Johann Rottenhammer. He lived in Rome from 1600 on. He was popular in Italy, in particular among other painters, and many prints were made of his scenes. This copper plate seems to have belonged to Paul Bril N9 , a Flemish landscape painter who lived in Rome and also worked on copper plates. Elsheimer died in Rome in 1610.

We cannot but admire Elsheimer’s skills at picturing in so many figures on such a small plate, all in different costumes and attitudes. Several people are on horseback. The angels are particularly finely painted, with marvellous open wings and curling white cloaks. The painter put in the background a nice Italianate landscape. Admire the Roman ruins and the delicately painted trees. There is also quite some structure in the picture. There is a line going from the stooped guard on the left who picks up a stone, over Stephen’s head to the guard on the left who lifts high the stone to hit Stephen. Another line goes from the lower right over Stephen to the turbaned oriental horseman. The light sent by God also follows a diagonal of the plate. These oblique lines create movement, even though all figures are in a static position either knelt or standing. The cruelty of the scene of the half-naked guard who holds the final stone high above his head is very dramatic.

Elsheimer’s painting is particularly brilliant by the marvellous colours on the copper medium. His picture is a formidable display of masterly skills. Thus it must have testified to the wonders of the natural genius of humanity that showed sometimes in the creation of God.

Other paintings

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.