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Saint Stephen the First Martyr is shown wearing the deacon's tunic (sticharion) and stole (orarion), which he holds in his right hand. His tunic is red symbolising his martyrdom, but in some icons it is white, as in a 13th century version on Mount Sinai (fig. a). In his left hand he shakes a censer, an attribute of sainted deacons in icons.He is often portrayed alongside Saint Laurence, who was also a martyr and a deacon (see fig. b.). Our version continues the tradition of portraying Stephen with short hair and youthful appearance.
Tradition relates that Stephen was the first Christian martyr (protomartyr). His martyrdom is told in the New Testament (Acts 6-7). According to Acts he was known for his strong faith and as a miracle-worker (Acts 6:8). Once his face was transformed to the luminous form of an angel (Acts 6:15), echoing Moses' radiant face in Exodus 34:30. After disputing with the Jews in the synagogue, Stephen had a vision of Jesus and the Father in glory. As a result of this vision the Jews stoned him to death for blasphemy:
But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, And cast himout of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. (Acts 7:55-59)
Gregory of Nyssa, in a homily on Stephen, argued that the deacon's martyrdom was the beginning of the spread of Christianity out of Jerusalem and into the world: 'If it were not for Stephen's murder and the Jews' rage against the Apostles, perhaps the grace of the Gospel would have been confined to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.'
The inscription on Stephen's orarion (stole) is unusual, but it is in the shape of the Greek letter ἅ repeated five times. Each of these inscriptions is probably short for ἅγιος ('holy'), which we find in full and written twice down the orarion of Stephen in another icon from Mount Athos (now in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg) which was painted during the 17th century (see fig. c).
The Feast of Stephen is celebrated on December 27th - the same day as the Apostles Peter, James and John.