Narrative cycles of St. Stephen, proto-martyr, are common, frequently found on ecclesiastical monuments of thirteenth-century France. The cathedrals of Bourges, Chartres, and Paris, to name only a few, support visual imagery inspired by the legend of Stephen. Ordained by the apostles, ostensibly to aid the widows and orphans of the congregation, Stephen quickly shows himself “full of grace and fortitude” (Acts 6:8). His inspired, vitriolic sermon incurs the wrath of the Jews who lead him from the city of Jerusalem and stone him.
The prevalence of Stephen’s cult in the Gothic cathedrals of medieval France has been recognized by scholars; however, little attention has been devoted to the bishops’ development and use of the cult, or the churches’ production or interpretation of visual imagery. Explanations of the extant images have been driven by text based, iconographic models, which have often obfuscated the relevance of intricate compositional elements and relationships that are key to a more artistically and historically relevant understanding of the compositions. The intricately sculpted Stephen cycles in thirteenth-century France and the historic circumstances that informed their conceptions and receptions are the subjects of this dissertation.
Drawing from a survey of the extant, architectural, sculptural narratives and relevant historical resources, this dissertation begins with a discussion of the establishment and dissemination of Stephen’s cult in France. The following chapters focus specifically on the thirteenth-century images at the cathedrals of Rouen, Arles, Paris and Bourges chosen for their intricacy and unique compositional formulations. Ultimately, I propose the retelling of the Jewish/Christian debate at the root of Stephen’s story was subtly reconstructed by ecclesiastical officials and articulated by artists to reference and comment on contemporary anti-Jewish conflict and ideologies in the mind of the medieval, Christian viewer. I continue to argue that St. Stephen was an exemplar of ecclesiastical succession and an idealized manifestation of the extension of the bishop’s power within the ecclesiastical hierarchy. In addition to situating the proto-martyr’s imagery in social and political context, this endeavor also contributes to the broader understanding of the construction and function of pictorial, hagiographic narrative.