Saint Stephen: The Iconography

In Jerusalem the natal day Not the birthday but the day this saint died and went to Heaven of Stephen the Protomartyr, who was stoned by the Jews not long after the Ascension of the Lord. Roman Martyrology for December 26

The picture at right is typical of medieval portraits of St. Stephen in the West. As a deacon, he is tonsured and wears a dalmatic. The book in his left arm symbolizes the discourse on scripture that he gave to the Sanhedrin and that angered the crowd (6:8-7:57). It can also refer to the deacon's role of reading to the assembly from the Gospel Book during Mass. The stones on his head and shoulders refer to the manner of his martyrdom (Acts 7:58-60).

Generally the artists stay very close to this iconography. I have seen just one example of Stephen in another garb. One very early image presents the saint tonsured with the dalmatic and book, but does not use the stones. And one high medieval Madonna gives Stephen an odd yardstick-like length of wood.

In Orthodox churches it is the deacon who censes the people and the icons during the sacred liturgy, so Orthodox images normally show St. Stephen with a censer (example). The censer is much less common in Catholic images, though we see one in the picture at right.

NARRATIVE IMAGES

In Acts 6, Stephen was one of seven men called to help the Apostles "to serve" (diakonein) the Christian community (image). The text does not actually call them deacons; the noun derives from the verb. The first part of Acts 6 contemplates their duties as support staff, freeing up the Apostles' time for preaching. But in the second part Stephen is working "signs and wonders" and engaging in debate with the Jews (image). He is then brought before the Sanhedrin, makes his speech, and is stoned to death (image). Many images of the stoning include Stephen's vision, in which he sees the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (example).

That ends the story as told in Acts, but the Golden Legend has a special chapter for the "Invention of St. Stephen" – the discovery of his relics in Jerusalem and their transmission first to Constantinople then to Rome, where Stephen is at last laid to rest alongside St. Lawrence. The whole sequence of events is presented in a predella by Bernardo Daddi.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-01-26.

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Portrait by Lorenzo Veneziano, 14th century (See description page)

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DATES

  • Feast of St. Stephen: December 26
  • Feast of the Invention of St. Stephen: August 3.

HAGIOGRAPHY

  • Golden Legend #8 (Life of St. Stephen): html or pdf
  • Golden Legend #112 (Invention of St. Stephen): html or pdf

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