The art essay

The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen (1616–1617) by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)

One thing that certainly remained impressed upon Peter Paul Rubens during his Roman sojourn was the sense of theatricality that permeated the Eternal City. The processions and pageants, as well as the grand scenography of the liturgies, made saints and miracles come alive. Rubens imbued that sense of light, movement, and drama in his altarpiece The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen, painted in 1617 for the flourishing Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Amand, near Valenciennes in northern France. At 14’x 9’, the figures towered above the faithful standing below the triptych like actors on a stage. A jumble of hands, feet, and stones The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen (1616–1617), Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Museum of Fine Arts, Valenciennes, France. II greeted the viewer at eye level, as was done in the great canvasses of Caravaggio and the Carracci that Rubens studied during his time in Italy from 1600–1608.


The immediacy of theater

Rubens captures the immediacy of Saint Stephen’s stoning as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles. They…rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him (Acts 7:57- 58). A group of bare-chested men are seizing rocks and taking aim. One figure reaches towards the bottom of the canvas, grabbing two stones. In Roman altarpieces, figures often bend down towards the beholder where bread and wine are depicted, an allusion to the Eucharistic offerings, but Rubens places the heavy rocks of rejection by the viewer’s space. Following the line of the sinewy limb, the eye encounters two foreshortened arms forming a mockery of an embrace comprised of a closed fist and a clasped stone. That rock seems to burst through the pictorial field towards the viewer, again tying the faithful uncomfortably close to the scene. Two faces peer in from the left side, one in a hood and the other in a turban. Rejection of the Gospel is not limited to the Sanhedrin of Stephen’s age, but also extends to the Muslim world as well as Christendom in the post-Reformation era. On the opposite side, four figures prepare to pelt Saint Stephen with their stones. The large rocks and the strong diagonals underscore the momentum of the imminent lapidation. Their muscles bulge and flex, and their eyes appear crazed, with their accentuated whites. Rage has overwhelmed reason. Amid the violence of his impending death, Stephen remains serene. In his deacon’s robe, painted red to prefigure his martyrdom, he turns elegantly in space, lifting his face upwards. A savage foot kicks him down, yet Stephen moves gracefully. The other III figures are painted as bare bodies with distorted faces, but Stephen, cloaked by his chasuble, reveals only his radiant visage, recalling his description in Acts as like the face of an angel (6:15). Saint Stephen, the only one to look upwards, sees something his assassins do not: joyous pink angels tumbling towards him with his crown of martyrdom and his palm of victory. The others may have the muscles of athletes, but it is Stephen who will cross the finish line first. Rubens, attentive to accuracy in Scripture, illustrates how Stephen, filled with the holy Spirit, looked up intently to 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 and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-56). In this part of the painting, Rubens abandons the dark shadows from his study of Caravaggio and bathes the upper part of his canvas in the warmest shades of rose and gold. His colors appear to emit heat and fragrance. The source of the light, Christ, stands with the wound in his side visible, looking compassionately at Stephen while the saint emulates his own sacrifice. Next to him, God the Father, seated in profile, watches solemnly with his hand resting upon an orb.


A Catholic artist and witness

Rubens first came to Italy during the spectacularly successful Jubilee Year 1600, when the Catholic restoration was in full swing. He studied the grand paintings intended to excite piety towards saints and sacraments, commissioned under the pontificate of Pope Clement VIII, that were placed throughout the city. Rubens worked for the Congregation of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri, which promoted sacred concerts and theatrical productions, and that sense of the stage emerged in Rubens’ work upon his return to Belgium. He made several large triptychs, including the Martyrdom of Saint Stephen, where the altarpiece was concealed by two closed wings intended to be opened during Mass. In Stephen’s altarpiece, the exterior scene shows the Annunciation, where a pastel angel guides the golden rays from the Holy Spirit in the upper right towards Mary, who turns back to the source of light. Once opened, Stephen, the first to follow Christ to martyrdom, stands in the same light, in a similar position, illustrating his obedience unto death. Rubens, a Catholic convert after a Calvinist childhood, was very influenced by his contact with the Oratorians and their love of light, color, song, and joy. Rubens spent most of his life painting powerful works proclaiming Catholic orthodoxy, which won him patrons among the Catholic royalty of Europe. His own joyful faith followed closely the Oratorian mission of promoting personal conversion so that the witness of one’s joy would attract others. The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen illustrates the power of a great witness to convert souls. In the lower right, one man, still clothed, crouches amid the cloaks of Stephen’s assassins. He is Saul of Tarsus, the future Saint Paul. Saul reaches across the painting, perhaps asking for a stone to throw himself, with a gesture that commands the viewer’s attention. Saul’s other hand rests at the very edge of the canvas, closest to the beholder. The line of Saul’s body leads to that of Stephen, for indeed one day Paul will follow Stephen to glorious witness, and even we, perhaps still in distant shadows, inclined more towards persecution than witness, can find the path to Truth and Light, traced by these two great Apostles of Jesus.

Elizabeth Lev Writer and professor of art history in Rome

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen (1616–1617), Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Museum of Fine Arts, Valenciennes, France., Italie © Bridgeman Images