How does this tapestry function in relationship to the original texts? The Golden Legend, chapter 8, reads: “…with one accord [the Jews] ran violently upon him, cast him out of the city, and stoned him.” The text goes on to describe how the false witnesses (the stoners) laid their garments at the feet of the young Saul.
The woven inscriptions read: “How the Jews pushed forcefully and violently Monsieur St. Stephen outside of the city.” And in the next panel: “How the stoners threw their clothes at the feet of the adolescent named Abtha (Saul), later called Saint Paul and threw stones at St. Stephen who commends his spirit to God on his knees praying to God for the ones who stone him” (my translation).
Although the images follow the general outline of the story, they are obviously not a literal representation of it. For example, although we are told in the inscription that the stoners throw their garments at Saul, it is not shown. And Saul is hardly a young adolescent here.
There are similar discrepancies in the next panel which depicts a scene from the letters of Lucian that describes the vigil. The woven inscription reads: “How the body of St. Stephen is left in the place of his martyrdom and exposed to beasts and by divine power preserved.” However, a rather charming array of beasts hold the vigil, with Christ symbolically present as a unicorn.
The remaining scenes represent how the relics travel miraculously and dramatically from Jerusalem to Constantinople and finally to Rome. Although it is not depicted in the tapestry, the relics from Rome were said to have been taken to the cathedral of Auxerre in the Middle Ages.
So far we have been looking at the tapestries without reference to their possible reception at the time they were made, or in other words decontextualized. Recent scholarly research on choir tapestries has thrown new light on the way tapestries such as Stephen’s vita were used in their original context. This adds yet another element to their relationship to the texts that inspired them.
Laura Weigert, from Reed College, delivered a paper on the relationship of these tapestries to medieval drama at the Metropolitan Symposium in March 2002 where she talked about the impact that social context would have had on the reception of visual narrative in choir tapestries. The tapestries, woven to hang in the choir of the cathedral, would have been seen by the clergy in the choir of the cathedral on the Saint’s feast days. And, in Auxerre, they would have been shown in conjunction with a display of the actual relics of the saint.
Weigert pointed out that there are scenes in the tapestry, not drawn from either text, which refer directly to the activities of the feast days. Also, facial expressions and gestures that are included in the tapestry would have replicated those used during the actual performance of the liturgy. This context, she argues, would have added another powerful dimension to the visual narrative, lifting it out of the tapestry to resonate in the present moment for the viewers. The Saint’s relics in Auxerre would have acted as an actual sequel to the events depicted in the tapestry and the tapestries, in turn, would have evoked a liturgical voice to complete the ekphrastic cycle. These tapesties would have been not just objects but rather an event for the viewer.