Stoning of St. Stephen

Author: Unknown painter (second half of the 16th century - first half of the 17th century)

Dating: First half of the 17th century

Material: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 200 x 160 cm

Location: Milazzo, Cathedral of Santo Stefano Protomartire.


The painting, originally placed in the second altar of the left aisle of the ancient Milazzo Cathedral, can now be seen on the wall of the presbytery in the modern matrix. Severely lacerated along the edges, perhaps due to damage caused by the transfer of the seat, it has been adapted, with the addition of two wooden inserts, to a rich wooden frame carved with luxuriant leaf motifs in late 17th-century Baroque style. The overcrowded scene refers to the moment when the protomartyr Stephen on his knees, wearing a deacon's dalmatic and gazing at the Trinity, suffers the violence of the crowd and is stoned to death. The young man in a cuirass, pointing at the saint looking out towards the outside observer, is Saul, the future St. Paul, at whose feet, according to the Gospel account, the witnesses to his martyrdom laid down their cloaks (Acts of the Apostles, 7, 58).

The institution of the diaconal ministry is linked to the figure of St Stephen, one of the seven disciples chosen to serve tables so that the apostles would devote more time to preaching and prayer. Accused of having uttered blasphemous words against God and Moses, he was brought before the Sanhedrin where he delivered a long speech that, blaming the Jews for having allowed the killing of Christ by disregarding the predictions of the prophets, aroused the anger of the elders. The cult of the protomartyr in Milazzo goes back a long way. Local tradition recounts the discovery, in 1461, of some relics preserved in the ancient church of S. Maria del Boschetto and identified twenty years later as fragments of his arm, thanks to the interpretation of some documents. In 1521, with the confirmation of the authenticity of the relics, they began to celebrate him by electing him as patron saint of the city and in 1680 the matrix of Milazzo, originally dedicated to St. Maria Assunta, was also consecrated to St. Stephen by Archbishop Cicala.

The work, without precise documentary references, has been unanimously assigned by local sources to the Messina painter Letterio Paladino and dated 1729. Distant from the late Baroque transparencies of the 18th century as far as refined Novellesque naturalism is concerned, the painting openly declares its 16th-century Tuscan-Roman sources. With a late Mannerist imprint, marked by Counter-Reformation austerity, it reworks the two versions of the subject painted by Giorgio Vasari in the 1570s for Pisa and for the Chapel of Santo Stefano in the Vatican, also bearing in mind the panel painted by Giulio Romano around 1521. The numerous figures crowd into the scene set on a single plane almost devoid of perspective depth and revolve around the fulcrum of the composition consisting of the saint who, with his eyes and the gesture of his hands, leads the gaze towards the upper part occupied by the Trinity in a choir of angels, in adherence to the rigid bipartition of Counter-Reformation style.

The canvas, clearly subject to numerous damages and tampering that have altered the pictorial fabric, making it impossible to read it accurately, shows the prevalence of brown tones, barely enlivened by the golden luminosity of the divine apparition and the red of the drape that covers Christ with an articulated flutter. The author draws from the vast repertoire of forms and poses offered by the altarpieces of Florentine-trained painters working in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, who also played a decisive role in the artistic production in Rome in these years and whose various works reached Sicily. In the Milazzese canvas, one can read echoes of the paintings of Filippo Paladini, Agostino Ciampelli, and Domenico Cresti known as Passignano, from whom derive the composure and simplification of forms intended to correct, through a greater naturalness, the formal refinements and refined mannerist chromatic iridescence, barely evoked in the lorica of the young Saul.

Drawing on these models, the artist enriches Vasari's precedents with the addition of various figures, such as the soldier on horseback or the child on the left who, illuminated, emerges behind the figure of the torturer, highlighting his silhouette against the light. Some ungrammaticalities in the anatomical definition of some figures, probably attributable to later interventions, do not detract from the quality of the execution, which, however, cannot be attributed to a precise artistic personality. The absence of stylistic comparisons in contemporary Sicilian production leads one to suppose that this is not the work of a local artist. All formal data, however, indicate the execution of the painting no later than the first half of the 17th century. It is reasonable to assume that it was commissioned before the altar was consecrated to the saint, also in consideration of the diffusion of the cult in Milazzo from the early decades of the 16th century.


Buda V., Lanuzza S. (a cura di), Tesori di Milazzo. Arte sacra tra Seicento e Settecento, Milazzo 2015.