Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Stoning of Saint Stephen

This oil painting from 1625 is the first work of the Dutch Golden Age master, Rembrandt van Rijn. It tells the biblical story of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, who was stoned until dead by the Jewish citizens for his Christian faith.

The image strongly uses light and dark, or chiaroscuro, in its layout. We see a rear view of a man on the back of a horse, as well as one of Stephen’s executioners, both in relative darkness. In contrast, Stephen, surrounded by a group of men holding stones, is in direct, almost heavenly light. You can even make out the very line that separates the light from the darkness, as if it were a spotlight on the action.

Strangely, Stephen wears a bright red robe with tassels and intricate design, while the men around him wear simple white or dull colored tunics. Though this may be historically unlikely, it certainly draws the eye towards the Saint, who is the focal point of the painting. The man on the horse is also in scarlet, though, and wears a feathered turban. Behind him and to the left, even deeper into the darkness, is a similarly dressed man, and in the background, on a hill, stand a huddle of officials watching the stoning, and talking among themselves. All of their clothing seems to be inspired by Southern European Renaissance garb.

Even farther into the background stands an aged castle, beautifully designed and overgrown with foliage. It stands against a foreboding grey sky, one that looks like it may at any time open up to witness the tragic and transcendent event below.

We find Stephen himself on his knees, one hand stretched up towards the heavens, the other opening up towards the ground. The line of motion of his arms gives his figure a sense of urgency and dynamism. In his face we see fear, but also acceptance of his fate. His eyes squint in anticipation, his lips purse.

Directly above him, a bearded man stands ready to crush his head with a stone. His arms are raised above his head dramatically, forming that familiar triangle shape. The other men’s faces generally display either hatred or agony, but this man is collected, exhibiting only a stern pity. Next to him, we see a man who has just released his stone. Catching Stephen in the small of the back, the stone is shown in midair just beyond the edge of his side.

This painting uses prominent contrast of light and color to illustrate religious persecution, and the humanity of the players, which often gets muddled up in the process. Though our sympathy lies with Stephen, the design of his murderers leads us to think about their emotions and motivations, as if made clear by the same divine light that illuminates their bodies.

This paper was written for my Visual Art and the Catholic Imagination college course. All necessary editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this text.