Work in progress. This is 32″x72″ piece to be donated to St. Stephen’s Church in Coconut Grove. I will discuss how it came to be later. First let me discuss the elements of the piece.
St. Stephen was the first martyr of what was forming as the Christian church. He was murdered somewhere around 34AD in Jerusalem. According to historians, at the time the Greek speaking Hebrews were at odds with the Hebrews native to Israel. They (the Greek-speeking Hebrews) felt they weren’t getting their fair share of the social welfare work being done in the city. The original apostles were stretched too thin and so they decided to hand select a group of “deacons” to oversee the effort.
Stephen (Greek for crown) was the first selected. In addition to tending to those needing the largess of the Temple, he preached and preformed miracles. So far so good. As a matter of fact he is presented in most religious imagery as a lovely quiet guy who got the dirty end of the stick… This is one of those laminated cards distributed by the Catholic church.
As the story goes, the Sanhedrin (the same folks that had crucified Christ a year earlier) got wind of his preaching… and they weren’t happy. At this point I have to use my imagination and assume that the good news or Gospel that St. Stephen was preaching was rather antithetical to the Jewish thought of the day. Particularly the parts that had to do with grace and the power to summon “God” energy to overcome illness and other things lacking. One of the powerful points of religiosity of the day stressed “actions” as a way to live in the grace of God – The Rules.
Jesus spoke to the “grace” of God. How each of us is entitled to the goodness due us, not by acting in accordance with the so-called wishes of God, but rather, that God was prone to fulfill our wishes because he was God. That is God does for us not because of who we are but rather because of who He (or She) is…radical thinking in the day. Think of grace over good deeds, think miracles faith and the “Holy Spirit”.
In my estimation, Stephen might have met Jesus. Maybe he was at the sermon on the mount? Either way, he had metaphysical powers equal those bestowed by Jesus on the Apostles.
Now, he is working with dissonant Greek Jews, working in the “Synagogue of the Freedmen” and making people angry because of his message, jealous because of his powers and envious because of his unshakable faith in Jesus. Everyone is complaining about Stephen.
They drag him before the governing body, the Sanhedrin, and they tell him to explain himself. It doesn’t go well. First he tells them that the “God” doesn’t live in a building- Herod’s Temple. Then he tells them that he “sees” Jesus sitting at the right hand of God…oh, my…that must have been awkward…you know Jesus the guy you crucified for blasphemy, yeah…sitting at the right hand of God. It was too much.
That was it. They swooped him up out of the temple, dragged him out of the city walls and stoned him to death. Saul of Taurus, later to become St. Paul, was there. He held their coats. And, in all probability got the inspiration to start a new life killing guys like St. Stephen who were trying to upset the applecart. Nice work if you can get it.
Later Jesus catches up with Saul. It can be said that Stephen becomes the fulcrum for moving Christianity from cult to mainstream, from Christ to Christianity. Saul became St. Paul and becomes the medium for spreading the Word. Without St. Stephen is there a St. Paul?
So this painting is another look at St. Stephen, perhaps not as previously considered, but, what the heck? St. Stephen made the complete sacrifice and it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t peaceful and it wasn’t without notice. Because he prayed for the salvation of those who stoned him doesn’t mean he enjoyed it or didn’t notice it. More likely he had won the spiritual war and went peacefully because of some new awareness he obtained. St. Stephen transcended the suffering of being buried alive by rocks.
In my version Mohamed Ali has just beaten Sonny Liston. He stands over his adversary a victor. Like St. Stephen, he was the clear winner. Ali wears his boxing gloves. I chose this image for St. Stephen because like Mohamed Ali, St. Stephen was in a fight for his life. Booth struggles weren’t street brawls. In booth cases, the struggle was a “test,” a tribunal, a fight with rules.
St. Stephen stands over loaf of Wonder Bread sitting among martyrs’ palm fronds. Wonder Bread was exactly that at its time of inception – a wonder. It was the first bread fortified with vitamins and minerals. Actually it was credited with the elimination of several nutritional diseases including beriberi and pellagra. Wonder Bread was also known as the “Quiet Miracle.”
St. Stephen’s duties as an archdeacon surely must have included the distribution of food including bread, but this bread also suggests the grace of God, the Daily Bread. Speaking and spreading the word of the Daily Bread is probably what got Stephen into hot water in the first place. It was the thing that got him killed. Not punished, not chastised, but killed. St. Stephen’s faith in his beliefs was his strength and nemesis.
In Stephens right hand is a rose, a symbol of completion, of consummate achievement and perfection. His struggle was not a pugilistic struggle as much as it was a gentle awaking for those he preached to. The rose is also said to be a symbol of silence and secrecy. Stephen’s struggle is moving about the world after the death of Christ and spreading the gospel, that which would later cost him his life. You can see the respect for his struggle in the face of the Mohamed Ali.
In the background is the garden gate. The garden is the garden of knowledge of Christ and the miracle that would later sustain itself as Christianity for two thousand plus years. Outside the gate, the “real world” where he was to be stoned to death, was the other reality. St. Stephen knew well of booth worlds when he made his decissions. He knew the secrets that Christ revealed to the world. As a saint, he would traverse the boundaries of here and there regularly. Most of us live on one side of the garden gate.
Finally, my Saint Stephen wears boxer shorts. Why boxers? A saint as historically significant as St. Stephen deserves a holiday? Well, December 26 is celebrated as St. Stephens day. The day after Christmas… Traditionally it is known as Boxing day. So there you go…aren’t you glad your birthday isn’t celebrated on December 26?
Why did I make the piece. More than 45 years ago I listened to the Grateful Dead perform a song…”St. Stephen” in concert. The song and the words have stuck with me since. Trying to match the beloved song with the legend of St. Stephen is next to impossible. The song did though provoke a re-imagination of the story of St. Stephen. And isn’t that what good art should do? Shouldn’t it challenge you to think differently? Finally, I have had the initiative to act on re-inventing my impression of St. Stephen.
For what its worth, here are the lyrics to the song, see if you can connect the dots;
“Saint Stephen, with a rose
In and out of the garden he goes
Country garden in the wind and the rain
Wherever he goes, the people all complain
Stephen prosper in his time
Well he may and he may decline
Did it matter? Does it now?
Stephen would answer if he only knew how
Wishing well with a golden bell
Bucket hanging clear to Hell
Hell halfway ‘twixt now and then
Stephen fill it up and lower down
and lower down again
Lady finger dipped in moonlight
Writing “what for?” across the morning sky
Sunlight splatters dawn with answers
Darkness shrugs and bids the day good-bye
Speeding arrow, sharp and narrow
What a lot of fleeting matters you have spurned
Several seasons, with their treasons
Wrap the babe in scarlet covers, call it your own
Did he doubt or did he try?
Answers aplenty in the bye and bye
Talk about your plenty, talk about your ills
One man gathers what another man spills
Saint Stephen will remain
All he lost he shall regain
Seashore washed in the suds and the foam
Been there so long he’s got to calling it home
Fortune comes a crawlin’, Calliope woman
Spinning that curious sense of your own
Can you answer? Yes I can,
but what would be the answer to the answer man?
High green chilly winds and windy vines in loops around
The twining shafts of lavender — they’re crawling to the Sun.
Wonder who will water all the children of the garden when
They sigh about the barren lack of rain and droop so hungry ‘neath the sky?
Underfoot the ground is patched with climbing arms of ivy
Wrapped around the Manzanita — stark and shiny in the breeze…
William Tell has stretched his bow till it won’t stretch no further
And it will require a change that hasn’t come before.”
Copyright Ice Nine Publishing.