The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen - Carlo Ceresa | lynda benglis, marco cingolani, ron gorchov, simon linke, klaus rinke, galleria d'arte bergamo

The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen - Carlo Ceresa

Essays | 08/09/2021

The painting is an oil on canvas representing the Martyrdom of Saint Stephen, unmistakably attributable to the Artist Carlo Ceresa (San Giovanni Bianco, January 20th, 1609 – Bergamo, January 29th, 1679). As reported by the historian De Pescale[1], Ceresa was a prolific author who painted altarpieces and portraits, mainly commissioned by local clients over almost half a century. His language was dry and harsh, far from the baroque emphasis and exuberance of that time. For this reason, his style perfectly fits into the Lombard tradition of “painting reality”. From a historical and critique point of view, Ceresa’s figure was re-evaluated by Art historian Roberto Longhi. He included Ceresa among the protagonists of the renowned show “Painters of Reality in Lombardy” (Milan, Palazzo Reale, April-July 1953)[2], together with Moretto, Moroni, Savoldo, Cavagna, Cifrondi, Ceruti, and Fra’ Galgario. Despite the lack of in-depth documentation, the painting was attributed to Ceresa through an extensive analysis of its materials and execution techniques. The altarpiece depicts the stoning of Saint Stephen, the protomartyr. That is, the first person to shed blood for professing their faith in Christ. This event is narrated in the Acts of the Apostles (6-7) and is depicted rather often in the history of Art.


The martyred Saint is located at the center of the composition. He is kneeling on the ground, sideways, with a pleading gaze. He turns his face towards the sky, where other characters are seated on a cloud: God, dressed in the typical antique green garment and golden cloak, and Christ, on the left, wrapped in a white cloth covering His nudity. The Holy Spirit hovers on Their heads, represented by two golden beams of light originating from a point external to the painting, to finally descend over the Saint and enlightening him. The powerful light also illuminates the tormentor on the left, who is crouching in the lower corner. This lets us grasp the Holy Spirit’s strength: the tormentor’s shadow stretches down to be projected onto the Saint’s dalmatic. Saint Stephen wears a red dalmatic over a white garment, finely enriched by laces on its sleeves and hems as well as tassels on his waist, following the typical iconographic representation. The Saint’s white and red clothes break into the composition and become the fulcrum of the narration from which the characters unravel over three different planes. On the left, in the foreground, we find the already mentioned tormentor intent on finding stones on the ground, wearing light blue pants, an undone shirt, and a green striped rag on his head. A standing man is depicted sideways on the right, wearing a white aflutter robe, belted at the waist by a rope, okra pants, and a green striped band on his leg, the same colors as the other tormentor’s rag. We can presume this man is moving, as his left foot is sustaining his weight while his right leg is outside the canvas. The man raises his arms over his head, folding them while holding a massive rock. Ceresa lets us sense the stone’s weight and the harshness of letting it fall on Saint Stephen’s body. In the second plane, other tormentors are painted in darker colors. Above the oppressor on the left, we see another man crouching, wearing a turban and orange garments, depicted as he lifts a stone from the ground. Behind him, another character in a white turban is caught while moving, his massive purplish cloak floating and creating a circular motion surrounding his figure. His face, front-facing towards the observer, is contracted in a grin while staring at the Saint. Finally, going on towards the right side of the painting, we find the three-quarter profile of a character, placed between the man holding the stone on the right and the purple-cloaked man on the left. This man is depicted from behind, in the act of turning to observe Saint Stephen, showing us his shoulder. He wears a white shirt, a green vest with golden hems, a huge yellow-okra cloth, and a red headscarf tightened to his forehead by a golden lace. This man also holds a stone in his right hand, ready to throw it towards the Saint. In the background, we can discern three heads emerging from the backdrop’s shadows. On the left, we can also glimpse an architectonic profile composed of one dome and several towers. The leaden sky is interrupted, on the left, by the white clouds on which the Holy Trinity is seated. A naked goldilocks child angel flies diagonally on the right to gift the palm leaf of Martyrdom to the Saint.  


The studies conducted on the altarpiece completed by Doctor Enrico De Pascale[3] have demonstrated that the piece was created for the Parish Church of Santo Stefano degli Angeli (Saint Stephen of the Angels) in Val Calepio, now under the municipality of Carobbio degli Angeli, Bergamo. The altarpiece is mentioned by Luisa Vertova (1983) as one of the Artist’s works thought to be lost: “In the town of Santo Stefano, Trescore district, at the main altar of the Parish Church, Mairone da Ponte mentions a Martyrdom of Saint Stephen «thought to be the work of our famous Moroni». Moratti and Fornoni, however, attribute it to Ceresa…” (L.Vertova, 1984, p.629, n.340)[4]. In fact, both Moratti (1900)[5] and Fornoni (1915-20 ca.)[6] unmistakably attribute the piece to Ceresa. Fornoni, mentioning it as the “Martyrdom of Saint Stephen in S.Stefano degli Angeli”, commits a transcription error stating the work’s measures to be “cm. 0.97x0.84” instead of, presumably, 1.97x0.84. His measures indicate peculiar proportions, approximately square and relatively small, which is rather improbable for the main altarpiece. Indeed, following the laboratory analysis of the artwork, it was noticed that it was born as a larger piece with different proportions. Moreover, the frame is not the original one, as it shows clear signs of eighteenth-century craftsmanship and, in the upper part of the horizontal wooden structure, it assumes an arched shape. The historian De Pascale writes in his analysis of the altarpiece: “The fact that it was adapted during a posterior period is demonstrated by it being folded and partially «sacrificed» both in its upper part and on the right. An eloquent detail is the little angel’s left foot, partially hidden as it is folded onto the new structure behind the eighteenth-century frame. Such facts corroborate my hypothesis about the painting belonging to the main altar of the ancient Church of Stefano degli Angeli. In 1666, the church was included in the Summary of Bergamo’s Churches, a list redacted by Giovanni Giacomo Marenzi, the chancellor of the episcopal Curia, as being under the invocation of Saint Stephen and connected to the Parish Church of Telgate. The church was built in the XVI century and enriched by Baschenis’ frescoes. However, it was demolished during the XVIII century to make way for the current building, the main altar of which is still adorned by an altarpiece depicting the Stoning of Saint Stephen by Francesco Capella (Venice, July 5th, 1711 – Bergamo, 1784), delivered in 1761 for the cost of 500 scudi. At that moment, evidently, Ceresa’s piece was «demoted», mounted onto a new eighteenth-century frame with a rounded shape and located somewhere in the new church, presumably on a minor altar. It is this new location that Moratti first (1900)[7] and Fornoni later (1915-20)[8] noticed and cataloged the piece. On the other hand, since it is not mentioned in the detailed Inventory of the Assets of S.Stefano degli Angeli Parish Church written by Angelo Pinetti (1931)[9], it is reasonable to assume that the altarpiece was alienated over some time between the 1920s and the 1930s”. Regarding its attribution to Carlo Ceresa, Doctor De Pascale explains how such a statement has been possible through the study of the works undoubtedly ascribed to the Artist and their strong resemblance with the attributes of the altarpiece. As typical of the Artist, we find the habitual palette of cerulean/greyish background colors contrasting with the bright and warm foreground shades, such as okra, reds, and whites. Moreover, the drawing is undoubtedly the result of Ceresa’s careful study of Daniele Crespi’s artworks (1597-1630), from which his compositions and cardboard preparation are inspired and later used in many other works. It was, in fact, typical for Artists of that time to prepare cardboards and use them repeatedly according to necessity. Finally, the pictorial ductus is given by the smooth and well-studied brush strokes, achieved with confident and fast gestures, without wasting any time cleaning the brush from the excess color on a rag, but instead cleaning it directly on the unpainted canvas or on its backside.


As anticipated, Ceresa used to closely study the models offered by the Artist Daniele Crespi. Specifically, according to Doctor Enrico Pascale: “it is interesting to observe that the tormentor’s figure standing on the right shows significant likeness with an analogous figure depicted in Daniele Crespi’s Stoning of Saint Stephen (1622, Milan, Castello Sforzesco), an author whom sources and recent studies have recognized as a constant reference point for Ceresa’s figurative Culture.” [10]

Moreover, according to Ceresa’s typical modus operandi, Saint Stephen’s profile, pointing upwards, is a recurring theme in several others among his compositions, confirming the use of cardboards and drawings as ready-to-use models for various needs. In this case, we can identify a Head in Profile (1645-50, oil on paper applied over a canvas, cm 14x25), preserved at the Musei Civici in Padua (S. Facchinetti, 2012, pp. 179,190)[11], that Ceresa used for Saint Stephen’s face. Note the details of the nose, the left ear, and Adam’s apple. The same face was probably also used as the basis for Saint Hubert’s (preserved at Accademia Carrara) and, specularly, for a young Saint Anthony from Padua, depicted in the altarpiece with the Virgin and other Saints placed in the Church of Saint Pantaleon in Ponteranica (1648). Besides giving us stylistic and technical evidence, these data allow us to date the Stoning of Saint Stephen around the middle of the XVII century.

During the multispectral surveys, it emerged how the Artist used to lightly draw before painting, with lines so thin they were only visible under infra-red light. Interestingly, several “remorses” and changes of ideas could also be noticed. The most evident one can be observed on the stone held by the character on the right, which was decreased in size. Moreover, another change has been observed in the position of the crouched character in the foreground, on the left. In the first draft, the man was depicted wearing a mid-back robe, as shown by the direction of the cracks in the paint and, mainly, by the infra-red trans-illumination.


A special thanks to Art Historian Enrico de Pascale and Art Restorer Valentina Monzani.

[1] Carlo Ceresa (1609-1679) Lapidazione di Santo Stefano (The Stoning of Saint Stephen), Enrico de Pascale, 2021.

[2] R. Cipriani, G. Testori, R. Longhi, I pittori della realtà in Lombardia: Milano (Palazzo Reale), April-July 1953, Editore Pizzi, 1953.

[3] Carlo Ceresa (1609-1679) Lapidazione di Santo Stefano (Stoning of Saint Stephen), Enrico de Pascale, 2021.

[4] L. Vertova, Carlo Ceresa. Un pittore del Seicento, Exhibition Catalogue, Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo, 1983.

[5] G. Moratti, Pittori che dipinsero in Bergamo e sua provincia, compresa la Val Camonica, manuscript, 1900, I, p.277, Biblioteca Civica Angelo Mai, Bergamo.

[6] E. Fornoni, Pittori Bergamaschi, manuscript (1915-29 ca.), Curia Vescovile, Bergamo, II, p. 186, n°77.

[7] G. Moratti, Pittori che dipinsero in Bergamo e sua provincia, compresa la Val Camonica, manuscript, 1900, I, p.277, Biblioteca Civica Angelo Mai, Bergamo.

[8] E. Fornoni, Pittori Bergamaschi, manuscript (1915-29 ca.), Curia Vescovile, Bergamo, II, p. 186, n°77.

[9] A. Pinetti, Inventario degli oggetti d’arte d‘Italia, Provincia di Bergamo, Roma, 1931, pp. 198-199.

[10] Carlo Ceresa (1609-1679) Lapidazione di Santo Stefano (Stoning of Saint Stephen), Enrico de Pascale, 2021.

[11] S. Facchinetti (curated by), Carlo Ceresa. Un pittore del Seicento lombardo tra realtà e devozione. Exhibition Catalogue (Bergamo, March 10th -June 24th 2012), Galleria d’arte moderna e contemporanea, Bergamo 2012.

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