Fra Filippo Lippi painted a ‘striking’ illusion in his depiction of the martyrdom of St. Stephen in the Cathedral of Santo Stefano in Prato. Stones hurled by Stephen’s tormentors from the left wall of the chapel are aimed at the kneeling saint on the back wall, traversing the real space of the church. The narrative moment of the dedicatory saint’s lapidation became the site of boundary-breaking experimentation with pictorial space. The violent scene takes place in close vicinity to the high altar dedicated to ‘S. Stephani Protomartyris’. Simultaneously, the fresco signals one of the founding relics of the Pratese church; one of the stones, or sasso, of St. Stephen’s martyrdom.
This paper argues that Filippo’s highly innovative fresco exists in a network of meaning between illusionistic stoning and stone relic. This meaning is amplified by a scriptural source. Isaiah 28:16 reads: ‘Therefore thus saith the Lord God: Behold I will lay a stone in the foundations of Sion, a tried stone, a corner stone (lapidem angularem), a precious stone, founded in the foundation. He that believeth, let him not hast.’ The metaphorical ‘corner stone’ ¾ Christ ¾ became tied to St. Stephen’s martyrdom through hagiography and sermons. The fresco’s illusionism makes the weapons of Stephen’s executioners into ‘corner stones’, or lapides angulares. Their impact results both in death and in immanent coronation as martyr. The ingenuity of Fra Filippo’s fresco amplifies the symbolism of Stephen’s martyrdom and his connection to Christ in a microcosm of stoning and stones.
Joost Joustra is the Sackler Research Forum Postdoctoral Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where he recently completed his PhD on the relationship between pictorial space and sacred subject matter in Florentine painting of the mid-fifteenth century. At the Courtauld, he is leading a collaborative research project titled ‘Art of the Invisible’, exploring how visual artists have addressed invisible subjects across chronological and geographical boundaries.