The Trial and Martyrdom of St. Stephen
Painted by Sir Edward Poynter between 1871 and 1873
We have a rare survival of an intact 19th century fresco. This was the height of fashion and an important artistic movement, which reached its apogee in the re-decoration of the Houses of Parliament in the 1840-60s. It petered out because of the quick deterioration of poorly executed frescoes, as other painting techniques were used by the artists and later restorers to repair the damage. Ours is remarkable in that the paintwork is almost entirely original; a careful restoration in 1995 disturbed as little as possible. Sir Edward Poynter was one of the most fashionable artists of the time; the fresco was commissioned by a Mr. Palmer. The Painting took 11weeks to execute and Sir Edward’s own receipt records a payment of £565 for his services.
Fresco is the art of painting on fresh, lime plaster in water-based pigment which sinks in and becomes part of the wall. The plaster must be carefully prepared daily with enough smoothed surface for that days work, either broad outlines or fine details, e.g. a face. The design is incised into the mortar with the aid of a cartoon, i.e. a scaled down master copy of the finished work, usually the cartoon and fresco surface are “squared off” before actual work begins. The outlines are pricked or pounced into the mortar; the artist must work quickly before the plaster dries. He needs paint of the right consistency, he can add lime powder to thicken and milk or even water to thin it. A sure hand and a steady purpose are a necessity as corrections are almost impossible. Disturbance and damp are the enemies of frescos. Bomb damage and subsequent shocks to the fabric which left the wall standing and uncracked and, the damp South Dulwich climate, remarkably, have not been able to rob us of this splendid work.
Sir Edward Poynter was, with Lord Leighton, and Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema, a leader of the Victorian Neo-Classicist movement. Leighton and Poynter had met as young men in Rome and had been deeply influenced by the works of Raphael and Michelangelo in the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. This is evident in the figures and architectural details of the fresco, where the colonnade of oriental marble is particularly fine.. The upper panel is the Trial of St. Stephen, showing the amazement and horror of the High Priest of the Council at the blasphemy of Stephen, with the two false witnesses behind him and the book of the Law held by the group to his left. The other figures are listening judges, who recoil from Stephen as he cries out ‘Behold I see the Heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ This vision is symbolized by the rays of light from the upper part of the picture. All flinch from Stephen as they see his face as if it was the face of an angel. They are dressed in costume appropriate to the period, while Stephen is dressed like a Victorian deacon and on his vestments are embroidered crowns, Sir Edward Poynter’s play on the Crown of Martyrdom and Stephanos – Greek for “a crown”. The treatment of Stephen accords with the Victorian treatment of Jesus who is usually shown with fair skin light hair and, often, blue eyes. St. Stephen is depicted as younger and slighter than the men surrounding him, there is an element of the feminine about him in contrast to the other figures. He is also the only figure with space round him, a longstanding artistic convention to focus attention on the most important subject in a group. The upper panel is a study in static grandeur in contrast to the rhythm and movement of the cartoon and lower panel.
The lower panel shows the Martyrdom of St. Stephen. The populace is eager to stone St. Stephen before they reach the execution ground outside the city. Saul – later to be St. Paul – at the left hand corner holds the clothes of the false witnesses from the upper panel. The Roman soldiers are the temporal power, keeping order. Sir Edward, in our copy of his handwritten account of the work says, ‘one indignantly protects Stephen, pushing off a ruffian with the butt of his spear.’ The other, ‘resignedly drags Stephen along and clears the mob contemptuously out of the way.’ The movements of the mob, soldiers and Stephen now outside and heading towards a green hill on which a violent death will occur is a reference to the circumstances of Christ’s Crucifixion, a reference that would be plain to his contemporary viewers.
The cartoon (to the lower left of the fresco), shows the skill of the drawing underlying the painting of the fresco Sir Edward’s debt to Raphael and Michelangelo is clear and so is the fact that he was a fine draughtsman, as the figures seem driven across the drawing’s surface. On the bottom left and right hand corners of the lower panel are portraits of angels, a link to the upper panel and St. Stephen’s vision into Heaven. The left hand angel clad in blue is holding the crown of Martyrdom. The inscription says ‘ Be thou faithful unto death’ and is looking towards St. Stephen. The right hand angel clad in orange is holding the Victors Crown of Gold and gazes at us. The border is of palm leaves – the symbol both of martyrs and triumph.
Sir Edward Poynter retreated from large scale works towards arts administration. He finally became President of the Royal Academy in time to see his style of painting go out of fashion. His marriage into an unusual and fascinating family of sisters made him brother in law to the Pre-Raphaelite painter Burne-Jones and uncle to Rudyard Kipling and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.
St. Stephen’s Church are happy to share their pleasure in the fresco, and more information may be found in ‘The Story of St, Stephen’s, South Dulwich – a Beacon in Times of Peace and War’, a history of our church by Michael Goodman.
These notes were written in 2007 by Mrs Millie Stoney,
member of the St Stephen’s PCC