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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Martyrdom of Saint Stephen - December 26

"The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church."  Tertullian 

The following contains excerpts from Jem Sullivan, Ph D's essay in the December 2013 issue of the Magnificat on Rembrandt's painting The Stoning of Saint Stephen.

"Outbreaks of violent religious persecution in the early centuries of Christianity called forth waves of martyrs willing to shed their blood out of love for and in imitation of Jesus.  Among the earliest biblical accounts of Christian martyrdom is the vivid description of the stoning of the deacon Stephen, recorded in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.

In a dramatic painting titled The Stoning of Saint Stephen, the Dutch master painter Rembrandt invites the viewer into the drama of his witness to Christ.  In this early work, painted in 1625, Rembrandt offers not only a stark visual depiction of the brutality of religious persecution but gives us a glimpse into the depth of Christian faith that inspired this martyr's ultimate witness unto death.

Two distinct spaces in the composition are divided by a sharp contract of light and shadow, in the tradition of chiaroscuro.  On the left side a shadowy figure on horseback looks over the scene as a silent witness. On the right hand we see, bathed in radiant light, Stephen on his knees surrounded by an angry mob.

Rembrandt captures the tortured faces of the stone throwers (including his own as a self-portrait directly above Saint Stephen) as they each take aim at the deacon with both vengeance and precision.  In the distance we see Saul, fierce persecutor of Christians, seated with the coats of the stoners on his lap as he gives his consent to this atrocity.

 Little does Saul know that in that tortured moment Stephen prays for the conversion of his tormentors, including his own conversion that will follow as he journeys to Damascus.  The blood of Stephen, shed for love of Christ, becomes the seed of Saul's conversion to faith in Jesus Christ.

As Stephen falls to the ground, he throws open his hands in total surrender to God and prays prayers in imitation of Christ on the cross, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," (Acts 7:59) and "Lord do not hold this sin against them." (Acts 7:60)

Rembrandt's masterpiece is a striking visual reminder that few of us will be called to the ultimate witness of martyrdom in death.  However, each one of us is offered numerous daily moments in which we are to give a joyful and loving witness to  the power of God at work in our lives and in the Church.  In these ordinary moments of everyday life, our words and deeds can offer a powerful witness to the truth of Christian faith."

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