Rembrandt was aged only 19 or 20 when he produced this picture, which is his earliest known work to date. It depicts the martyrdom of Saint Stephen—a young deacon of Jerusalem’s Christian community who was sentenced to death by stoning on the basis of false evidence from two witnesses (New Testament, Acts of the Apostles, 7:55–60).
The painter depicts the exact moment when, chased outside the city walls by the hostile crowd, Stephen is surrounded by his tormentors who are preparing to throw stones at him. On his knees, he seems to be appealing to Heaven—the ray of light illuminating him perhaps alluding to a divine vision outside of the picture.
The episode is described in a violently expressive style. A clearly visible diagonal divides the picture’s space into two strongly contrasted areas of light, creating a chiaroscuro effect that lends it a dramatic ambience. The suspended movements of the people with stones, the tension of their bodies, the vivid expressions on their grimacing faces, and the calm beatitude of the saint bring the scene and the moment theatrically to life.
Although there are a few inaccuracies in the drawing and the positioning of the heads, which seem to fill every space, may feel a little clumsy, the work’s expressive quality already foretells the talent of the master Rembrandt would become. It is interesting to note what may well be the first self-portrait of the artist, discreetly painted just above Saint Stephen’s head in the center of the picture.