Beauty in Death: Stoning of Saint Stephen

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Beauty in Death

An Investigation of the Divine Demise 
Curated by Tommy Dunn

Cigoli, Stoning of Saint Stephen, 1597

Saint Stephen died a truly gruesome death. In ancient Jerusalem, stoning was an acceptable punishment for blasphemy, and Saint Stephen had a talent for stirring up anger with words. Almost immediately after the death of Jesus, Saint Stephen preached to the Jewish population of Jerusalem that Jesus was in fact the son of God. The story goes that he challenged the Synagogue-goers to a debate and won with divine intervention. The leaders of Jerusalem hated him for this. They dragged him to a court where he stood accused of blasphemy. He responded to these accusations by launching into a lengthy diatribe against the people of Israel. He identified them as cowards who rejected prophets out of hand because they feared change. He claimed that even though they worshipped false idols, they persecuted those who followed the real God. Maybe he tried to enrage the court. If he did, he succeeded. The crowd got so angry that they abandoned concluding the trial. After he identified Jesus as the son of God one last time, they dragged him out into the town square and stoned him to death. Interestingly the future Saint Paul watched in the crowd before his conversion and indicated that he approved of proceedings.

Cigoli’s painting depicts Stephen’s moment of salvation in the midst of torment. He lies in the street, bloodied and nearing unconsciousness, but he makes no effort to avoid the stones. He has eyes only for God and Jesus at his side. These divine figures at the top of the painting seem to press down on the mortals below, coming closer to Saint Stephen. Additionally, God and Jesus float on ominous black clouds, possibly a sign of the torment that awaits those who persecuted Stephen. While almost everyone in the crowd looks rabidly at the execution, one girl in the bottom left seems to protest the killing. It is unclear who she is, but out of everyone in the painting, only she wears white. Saint Stephen, however, sees none of this. He remains unaffected by the brutality as he gracefully awaits his entry to heaven.

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