Saint Stephen’s Day Is A Moment To Reflect On Our Witness And Immortality

Saint Stephen’s Day Is A Moment To Reflect On Our Witness And Immortality

This gives us the chance to look at some beautiful objects, delve into history, and reflect on why the martyrdom of a first-century Christian is still relevant almost 2,000 years later.
William Newton
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I’m on Christmas vacation in Barcelona, and today is St. Stephen’s Day. It’s a public holiday here in Catalonia, as it is in many other parts of the world, and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (or “MNAC”) here in the Catalan capital has several interesting works of art that tell the story of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

This gives us the chance to look at some beautiful objects and delve into a bit of history, but it also provides us with the opportunity to reflect on why the martyrdom of a first-century Christian is still relevant today, almost 2,000 years later. Saint Stephen, whose feast day is today, was stoned to death for his faith as the man who would become the great Apostle Paul watched approvingly.

Meet Romanesque Art

One of the great strengths of the MNAC is its Romanesque collection, which showcases a style of art and design that was popular between about 1000 and 1150 AD. Many Romanesque buildings are still in use today, including the Tower of London, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Romanesque objects however, survive more rarely than do Romanesque buildings.

The MNAC boasts what is probably the finest collection of Romanesque art in the world. The museum contains not only Romanesque paintings, sculptures, objects, and architectural fragments, but also entire wall murals, detached from their original buildings and brought here for preservation beginning in the early twentieth century. They had a significant influence on the young Picasso, who was an art student in Barcelona before moving to Paris, and the MNAC is currently hosting an exhibition (through February 26, 2017) exploring how Romanesque art played an important role in the development of Picasso’s work—and, by extension, in the history of modern art.

Among the most interesting Romanesque murals at the MNAC is a large scene by an unknown artist depicting “The Stoning of St. Stephen.” It was painted in about 1100 for the church of Sant Joan de Boí, which is located in a mountain valley up in the Pyrenees. Many of the wall murals now in the MNAC come from this valley, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage site back in 2000, thanks to its large concentration of Romanesque buildings.
“Mural of the Stoning of St. Stephen”
“Mural of the Stoning of St. Stephen”

The mural is quite graphic, in two senses of that word. First, we see St. Stephen being struck and injured by the stones which are being thrown at him, and great streams of blood pour down his face. He raises his hands to Heaven in supplication, and the hand of God appears in the sky to bless him. Romanesque artists could be quite explicit when depicting martyrdom, in order to bring home to the viewer the reality of dying for one’s faith.

Second, the mural is very graphic in a design sense. Objects and features are simplified almost to the point of abstraction, such as the oddly rendered stones the executioners are throwing. Also notice how the artist uses repetition in portraying the executioners, who all have the same head and body type. As they move across the scene, they create a visual rhythm, echoing the repeating zig-zag pattern of the border above their heads.

Another Romanesque art object in the MNAC collection which tells the story of St. Stephen is a magnificent box known as the “St. Stephen Casket.” It was created by an unknown French artist working in the town of Limoges, today more famous as the home of fine French porcelain. Although this casket was created in about 1210-1220, during the early Gothic period, it was decorated in the by then old-fashioned Romanesque style. The simple geometry of the wooden box is made more elaborate by a crest rail arcade of tiny Romanesque arches, and by the richly-colored enamel-on-copper decoration of the exterior.“St. Stephen Casket”
“St. Stephen Casket”

The casket is only about seven inches long, and probably contained a relic of St. Stephen—perhaps one of his bones. St. Stephen is the patron saint of casket and coffin makers, and this box is shaped somewhat like a Roman or early Christian lidded sarcophagus. Perhaps the French craftsman who made this object had that patronage in mind as he worked on this commission.

On the front of the box, we see the arrest of St. Stephen on the upper portion, and his martyrdom on the lower portion. If you look closely, you’ll see a bearded, haloed man holding a cloak, standing on the left side of the lower scene. This is St. Paul, or rather Saul of Tarsus, as he was during St. Stephen’s lifetime. In the Bible, we’re told that a young man named Saul stood by and held the cloaks of the executioners at the stoning of St. Stephen. In this panel the artist portrayed Saul as an older man, already looking like Saint Paul, perhaps to make him more easily identifiable.

A Work of Contemplation

A third object at the MNAC featuring St. Stephen brings us completely out of the Romanesque style, and into the Gothic period of Western art. The large “Altarpiece of St. Stephen” in the museum’s collection was painted in about 1385, for the monastery of Santa Maria de Gualter in western Catalonia. This time we know the identity of the artist who made it: Jaume Serra, a painter who was active in Spain during the fourteenth century.

Serra was a member of a successful family of Catalan artists who specialized in the then-fashionable Sienese school of painting. This particular style originated in the Italian city of Siena in the middle of the thirteenth century, and for a time it rivaled the more realistic style of art contemporary artists in nearby Florence pursued. Sienese art often featured elegant figures with distinctive, almond-shaped eyes, and a great deal of attention was paid to surface decoration. Works in this style often exhibit a kind of ethereal, mystical quality, which was intended to foster prayer and contemplation.

This altarpiece features a large, central image of St. Stephen, who is depicted standing inside a Gothic-style chapel, surrounded by smaller images of scenes from his life. The top is crowned with a painting of the crucifixion and a series of carved, gilded finials set against a decorative background. Although this piece was clearly intended to impress, given its large size (it stands well above six feet tall), wealth of gilding, and colorful decoration, historians tell us it was not the principal work of art in the church where it was originally displayed. We can only imagine what the rest of that church’s interior, which is now in ruins, must have looked like when new.

“Altarpiece of St. Stephen”
“Altarpiece of St. Stephen”

Compared to the Romanesque works discussed above, Serra’s style is somewhat more three-dimensional, even if it isn’t what we would consider realistic. Notice, for example, how Serra portrays groups of people standing about in actual groups, so that those standing in the front obscure the figures standing in the back, rather than all of the figures being stretched out in a line. On the other hand, the people shown in these scenes are still somewhat flat, and do not cast any shadows. Some parts of the buildings and architectural details in the painting are shaded to make them appear more realistic, while others have no shading at all, leaving them as flat as the people in the scenes.

In the lower left-hand corner of the altarpiece, Serra gives us his own rendition of the stoning of St. Stephen. But whereas on the Romanesque casket St. Paul was shown as an older, bearded man with a halo, here Serra depicts him as a beardless young man, sitting on the cloaks of the executioners. In other words, this fellow is definitely still Saul, and not yet Paul: the road to Damascus still lies ahead of him.

One of my favorite details in this altarpiece appears in the lower right-hand corner; despite its macabre subject matter, I can’t help but smile every time I see it. In this scene St. Stephen’s body is being buried outside of the walls of Jerusalem, between two rather unusually jolly-looking skeletons. School children visiting the MNAC often stop to point out and laugh at this comical pair, perhaps unconsciously providing all of us with a lesson on how to look at our own mortality.

The Unity of a Common Faith

Considered together, all three of the pieces we’ve looked at show us just how surprisingly interconnected Europe was during the so-called “Dark Ages,” thanks to the trade and exchange of both goods and ideas. It’s why Romanesque art was adopted in places as diverse as Catalonia, England, and Switzerland at roughly the same time. It’s also why a style of Gothic painting that was in fashion in Siena could be just as popular hundreds of miles away in Barcelona.

These works show us that what united the people who commissioned and created this art was not a common government or tongue, but a common faith.

Perhaps most importantly however, these works show us that what united the people who commissioned and created this art was not a common government or tongue, but a common faith. Today that faith also unites more than 2.2 billion people on the planet, growing from the small seeds planted by the first followers of Christ, many of whom paid for their faith with their lives. “The blood of the martyrs,” as Tertullian wrote about 150 years after the death of St. Stephen, “is the seed of the Church.” Celebrating the lives of these martyrs in works of art is a way of reminding future generations that they, too, might be called upon to suffer greatly for their Christian faith.

Although St. Stephen may have been the first martyr to suffer and die for his belief in Christ, he was not nor will he be the last. Daily we are confronted with news stories of Christians all over the world being deprived of their rights, liberty, and their very lives, simply because they are Christians.

Just two weeks ago, an ISIS suicide bomber killed more than two dozen Christians in Cairo, by setting off a bomb inside a church on Sunday. Christian communities throughout rural Africa are deliberately targeted for annihilation by military forces, while drug cartels in Latin America assassinate Christian leaders who dare to speak out against their activities. From Sweden to Pakistan to Cuba, regardless of whether the country in question is a democracy or a dictatorship, Christians are the preferred punching bag for many in power.

St. Stephen’s life, then as now, is a wake-up call for those whose faith has become compromised or lukewarm, and a challenge to those who believe they can stamp out Christianity altogether, whether at the edge of a sword or by the stroke of a pen. His determination to persevere in his actions and to speak out in defense of his beliefs created a powerful example for others to follow. His example appealed as much to the Christian artists living centuries ago who created these works of art as it does to those Christians living today who can take a moment to admire them, and reflect upon the story they tell.

William Newton is a graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, The University of Notre Dame Law School, and Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. He lives in Washington DC. Learn more at wbdnewton.com and follow on Twitter @wbdnewton.

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