Today I am staying with the religious theme and I am also looking at another painting which is housed at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. My featured painting today is entitled The Stoning of Stephen by Adam Elsheimer.
Adam Elsheimer was born in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany in 1578. He was the son of a tailor and one of ten children. His initial training as an artist was under the tutelage of Philipp Uffenbach, the German painter and etcher. It is thought that in those early days he may have also been influenced by the works of the Dutch painter, Gillis van Coninxloo, as his early works show signs of the way the Dutch artist depicted forest scenes. Coninxloo, at the time, was living in the nearby Frankenthal region having had to flee his native country in order to avoid religious persecution.
In 1598, after his initial artistic training in Frankfurt, Elsheimer travelled to Munich and from there headed south into Italy. He initially settled in Venice and it is thought that whilst there he worked as an assistant to Hans Rottenhammer, a German painter who specialized in highly finished small scale paintings. Rottenhammer was a master craftsman who was known for his highly-finished cabinet paintings on copper, depicting religious and mythological subjects, which were a mix of both German and Italian fundamentals of design and technique. The term cabinet paintings was used to describe small works of art, which are usually no larger than two feet square but in many cases are much smaller. The name is especially used for paintings that depict full-length figures painted on a small scale, as opposed to a head painted nearly life-size, and these works of art are painted very precisely and with great delicacy. From the 1600’s onwards wealthy collectors of art would keep cabinet paintings in locked cabinets, hence the name, or sometimes they would be on show in a relatively small and private room in a house, to which only those with whom the house owners were on especially intimate terms would be admitted. Elsheimer learnt a great deal from Rottenhammer in the time they were together. Most of Elsheimer’s works were cabinet paintings painted on copper plates. He was particularly admired for his use of diverse sources of illumination. Using copper as his “canvas” meant that his pictures remained of small dimensions. But copper was an excellent medium on which to paint. It meant that Elsheimer was able to include more than fifty figures on this miniature-like plate. Copper also allowed him to put on paint in very fine and delicate strokes and by doing so the detail could be both intricate and decorative. He also took advantage of the medium to select and use very brilliant colours.
In the spring of 1600 Elsheimer moved to Rome and it was here, through his contact with Hans Rottenhammer that he met and became friends with the Flemish landscape painter, Paul Bril. Soon Elsheimer built up a friendship with a number of artists who were working in the Italian capital at the time, such as Rubens and David Teniers the Elder. The artistic work carried out by Elsheimer was noted in the Schilder-Boeck, which was written by the art historian Karel van Mander in 1604. In it van Mander praised the artist but described him as slow-working and making few drawings. It was this small output that led to Elsheimer’s financial ruin.
In 1606, Elsheimer married Carola Antonia Stuarda da Francoforte, a lady of Scottish ancestry and a fellow Frankfurter, and in 1609 they had a son. The son was not mentioned in a census a year later, which could have been because he died as an infant or possibly because he had been put out to a wet nurse. His wife had been the recent widow of the artist Nicolas de Breul. In 1606, Elsheimer was admitted to the Academia di San Luca, the Roman painters’ guild. He was a very religious man and converted to Catholicism in 1608. In spite of his fame and talents, he appears to have both lived and impoverished life and died penniless.
Despite his reputation for being an influential artist of his time he was a perfectionist and he dwelled for ages over a single work. This led to him being unable to finish enough pieces to actually make a living. This perfectionist trait along with frequent bouts of depression which stopped him working combined to reduce his artistic output. Elsheimer, despite having a talent that inspired Rembrandt and Peter Paul Rubens, and in spite of his fame and obvious talents, lived and died in difficult financial circumstances. In his latter days he had set up a partnership with a wealthy etcher, Count Hendrick Goudt to complete a number of works but he was unable to fulfil his part of the contract with his partner. Worse still, he had also borrowed a sum of money from his partner but was unable to repay him and was thrown into a debtor’s prison, where he died in 1610, aged 32. Sadly, he only painted for a period of about thirteen years and only twenty-seven pictures are attributed to him.
Rubens, who owned a couple of Elsheimer’s paintings, wrote of him saying:
“…..he had no equal in small figures, landscapes, and in many other subjects. …one could have expected things from him that one has never seen before and never will see….”
And on news of his Elsheimer’s death Rubens wrote to a friend:
“…Surely, after such a loss, our entire profession ought to clothe itself in mourning. It will not easily succeed in replacing him………….. For myself, I have never felt my heart more profoundly pierced by grief than at the news…”
Contemporaries described him as an extraordinary artist who “invented a style of small sceneries, landscapes, and other curiosities”.
The painting today is based on the New Testament story of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. The scene is set in Acts 7: 55-60
“…..But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep…”.
Elsheimer’s painting on copper is entitled The Stoning of Stephen which he completed around 1604 and which can now be seen in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. St Stephen was one of the first seven deacons of the Christian Church appointed by the Apostles and also its first Christian martyr. His fervent preaching had incurred the hostility of the Jewish authorities who accused him of blasphemy and he was sentenced to be stoned to death outside the walls of Jerusalem.
The painting before us shows the point in time just before Stephen’s execution. He has sunk to his knees. There is a gentle naivety about his expression. He actually seems surprised with what is about to happen to him. He is open-mouthed uttering his last words to God asking him to receive his spirit. His tormentors with their arms held aloft clutch large stones which they are about to rain down on the ill-fated Stephen. It is at this time that he is said to have experienced a vision of heaven and a beam of intense light penetrated the clouds and shines down on the kneeling saint almost like a spotlight focuses on an actor on a stage. Stephen is dressed in the robes of a deacon, and angels tumble towards him bearing the palm fronds of martyrdom and a laurel crown.
It is a small work of art measuring just 35cms x 29cms (14 inches x 11 inches). It is an extremely colourful work and the artist has magically depicted the beams of light, emanating from the heavens at the top left of the painting, and falling on the head of the martyr. The painting is divided into three diverse areas with diagonals creating clear tonal contrasts. This effect is known as chiaroscuro. To the left and right, the painting is in shadow. On the left-hand side we see a man on horseback presiding over the execution. This is Saul of Tarsus, who would himself late convert to Christianity and become the future Saint Paul. On the right-hand side, also in shadow, we see some Roaman soldiers, one of whom is on horseback, and a gathering group of spectators. The middle section is illuminated, and in this section we see Stephen and his young executioners.
Rembrandt’s first dated work is entitled The Stoning of St Stephen, which he completed in 1625 at the age of 19, and appears to be a response to Elsheimer’s painting of the subject. The same chiaroscuro effect can also be seen in his version of the painting.
For me, besides the exquisite colouring and the astonishing amount of detail Elsheimer has brought to this painting, I love the magical Italianate landscape which forms the background. Elsheimer’s delicate portrayal of the trees and the Roman ruins exudes such a beautiful and enchanting quality. I would have loved this work of art to have been on a much larger scale but then maybe some of the enchantment would have been lost.
The Flemish landscape artist Paul Bril, who befriended Elsheimer, may have, at one time, owned this painting.