Saint Stephen (Gk. Στέφανος, Stephanos “crown,
wreath”) is venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox churches. In the West,
his feast day has been the day after Christmas, Dec. 26, because he was the first Christian martyr (Protomartyr). As the eldest
of the first seven deacons chosen by the Apostles, he is termed the Archdeacon.
Stephen is described as “full of the faith and of the Holy Ghost” who did “great
wonders and miracles.” Tradition holds he was about 30 when he was killed. In the words of one Church Father, he was
“the starting point of the martyrs, the instructor of suffering for Christ, the foundation of righteous confession,
since Stephen was the first to shed his blood for the Gospel.”
Acts recounts how Stephen was tried by the Jewish priests for blasphemy against Moses and God and for speaking against the
Temple and the Law. During his trial, Stephen accused the Jews of persecuting prophets:
“Which one of the Prophets did your fathers not persecute, and they killed the
ones who prophesied the coming of the Just One, of whom now, too, you have become betrayers and murderers.”
In the midst of his trial he had a vision:
“Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” This sealed his fate; he
was stoned to death (c. 35 A.D.) by an angry mob in the presence of Saul of Tarsus, the future Paul. In the midst of his martyrdom,
Stephen prayed that God would forgive his executioners.
Saint Stephen, from the shrine in
In 415 A.D., during the reign of Emperor Honorius, the relics of Stephen were found and later transferred
to a church built in his honor in Jerusalem. In the time of Emperor Theodosius the Younger (408-450 A.D.), the relics were
moved to Constantinople. Gregory of Tours reported that the intercession of the saint preserved an oratory
dedicated to him at Metz when the rest of the city was burnt by the Huns on Easter Eve, 451 A.D.
Saint Stephen is frequently depicted in art as a young, beardless man with
a tonsure, wearing ancient deacon’s vestments. Sometimes he is shown holding a miniature church or a censer (as in the
contemporary icon, left), more often with three stones (a reference to his death) and the martyr’s palm.
Right: Saint Stephen, from The Demidoff Altarpiece of Carlo Crivelli (1476).
The rocks around Stephen’s head and body refer to his stoning. He is shown holding a palm and the Gospel.
Stephen (left) in a modern icon and (right) by Giotto in the 14th century.