Carlo Crivelli, “Saint Stephen”, 1476, Tempera and Gilding on Panel, national Gallery, London
Carlo Crivelli painted in tempera only, despite the increasing popularity of oil painting during his lifetime, and on panels, though some of his paintings have since been transfered to canvas. His predilection for decoratively punched gilded backgrounds is one of the marks of this conservative taste, in part imposed by his patrons. Of his early polyptychs, only one, the altarpiece from Ascoli Piceno, survives in its entirety in its original frame. All the others have been disassembled and their panels and predella scenes are divided among several museums.
This panel showing Saint Stephen is part of the large “Demidoff Altarpiece” made for the high altar of San Domenico in Ascoli Piceno, east-central Italy.
Saint Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was a lay assistant to the priest of the first Christian community in 1st-century Palestine and was responsible for a daily distribution of food to the poor. Accused of blasphemy against Moses and God, he was tried by a religious council. As he spoke in defence of his belief in Christ as the Messiah, those watching him saw the face of an angel. Enraged, the council stopped the trial and took him out of the city where he was stoned to death.