By Alexis Culotta and Maggie Bell 

A bonus for Boxing Day: the Feast of Saint Stephen takes place on 26 December as a celebration of the figure considered the first Christian martyr.

The New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles tells of the life of Stephen, who served as a deacon in Jerusalem. His teachings, which often accompanied charitable acts, drew the ire of members of the Synagogue of the Libertines, also known as the Synagogue of the Freedmen, which eventually ballooned into accusations of blasphemy on Stephen’s part. As a result, Stephen was stoned to death in 34 CE.

The Church of Santo Stefano in Bologna reflects the saint’s ties to Jerusalem.  According to tradition, the church was begun by Saint Petronius who wanted to establish a centrally-planned structure over the temple to the goddess Isis, which would resemble the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  The church complex has changed and expanded dramatically over the centuries, and is known not only as a striking example of a structure that enabled “virtual pilgrimage”to the Holy Land, but also for its remarkable polychromatic stone and brickwork.

Though the origins of Saint Stephen’s feast day are vague, the Feast of Saint Stephen is today celebrated in various capacities around the globe. For some it is celebrated alongside the secular holiday of Boxing Day; in Ireland, it marks the public holiday known as the “Day of the Wren”; and in Rome, it often elicits a customized Angelus mass from the Pope.

Carlo Crivelli, Saint Stephen, 1476. Originally from the Demidoff Altarpiece. National Gallery, London.

Fra Angelico, Life of Saint Stephen: Ordination and Distributing of Alms, 1447-1449. Fresco cycle for the Chapel of Niccolò V, Vatican.

Vittore Carpaccio, The Sermon of Saint Stephen in Jerusalem, 1514. Louvre, Paris.

Lodovico Cardi da Cigoli, The Stoning of Saint Stephen, 1597. Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence.  

Lazzaro Morelli, Saint Stephen, c. 1662-1665. Top of South Colonnade (Brachia Carlo Magno Entrance), Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome.

Basilica of Santo Stefano, Bologna, facade.

Basilica of Santo Stefano, Bologna, interior view of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. 

Detail of brickwork on the exterior of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

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