Aurelio Martelli depicts the dramatic moment of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. The stoning of St Stephen was the first recorded instance of a follower of Christ dying for their faith (Acts 6.5–7.60). Due to his zealous preaching, Saint Stephen had angered the authorities in Jerusalem and was accused of blasphemy. He wears the robes of a deacon, as he was also one of the first seven deacons appointed by the apostles, licensing Martelli to use a powerful red to accentuate the saint’s imminent torment.
As he was being stoned to death, St Stephen is said to have experienced a vision of the open heavens, which Martelli captures. The Bible describes Stephen as ‘full of faith and power’ but Martelli has chosen the moment when, like Christ, he serenely excuses his persecutors: ‘lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep’. With a tilted head and upward gaze, St Stephen looks up toward the sky. A putto emerges above him from a beam of intense light that shines down on him, carrying with him the crown and the palm of martyrdom. In the background, Martelli depicts a multitude of characters, but none seem to be directly involved or implicated in the scene before them.