Special literature ascribes a distinguished role to the Pápa cycle in both the late phase of Franz Anton Maulbertsch's oeuvre and in the history of late baroque ceiling painting. Its specific features are interpreted by the authors as manifestations of unfolding neo-classicism and the Enlightenment. The St Stephen cycle is, however, a series of history pictures set into the medium of fresco painting, and accordingly, the mode of rendering adapts to the classic, centuries-old tradition of history painting and is not necessarily the outcome of a period style. The utterances of the client, bishop of Eger Károly Eszterházy and Maulbertsch are to be interpreted as reflections upon the rules of this genre. The demand for dramatic unity is already discernible in the formulation of the scheme and recurs repeatedly in their correspondence. The narrative unfolding in the ceiling paintings in Pápa can be taken for a painted tragedy of a complex plot based on Aristotle's notions of change of fate (peripeteia) and recognition (anagnorisis), the precedents of which are not to be sought in ceiling painting but much rather in the history of pictures of a classical approach produced in the early modern age. Maulbertsch's most frequently quoted words are from a letter he attached to a sketch of the ceiling painting depicting the ordination of St Stephen and his fellows deacons: He says he preserved the sanctity [heiligkeit], the quiet order [stille ordnung], the characteristic clothing [das Kenliche in der Kleidung], and the effictive meaning of the history [Wirckhsame bedeittung der Historie]. Style historical research tends to relate this passage to neo-classicism and to the categories of Ramdohr and Winckelmann. In fact, Maulbertsch was not speaking of the entire cycle here but only of the fresco of the first vault section, outlining the specificities of its rendering inhering in the peculiar theme and the place of the picture within the cycle.
Eszterházy asked the painter to adhere to the rules of costume of history painting, which meant the harmony of clothing, setting and accessories: the apostles are all clad in long-sleeved gowns, ample cloaks and have halos, while the deacons wear alb and stole. Maulbertsch did not apply the rest of the notions to reflect up the esthetic norms of a new style but used them to define the mode of representation chosen for the conveyance of the scene, and this mode was sharply different from that of the subsequent pictures. The rendering of the ceremony of ordination implies sanctity and quiet order, and the dignity and significance of this story are enhanced by the chosen artistic tools.
In the second ceiling picture of St Stephen's dispute, most of the congregation gathered in the temple receive the heard words with passionate outrage. Some of the types and formulae were taken from the conventions of the representation of the theme; the composition is closely related to the ceiling fresco in the parish church of Kirchdorf painted by Johann Baptist Enderle. Maulbertsch's absorbtion in the academic practice of the expression des passions and the classic elaboration of similar themes is clearly manifest here. The poor condition of the surface allows only some vague idea of the original pageantry of colours of the whirl of brightly dressed people and draperies in the impressive illusionistic space.
The next scene, the arrest of the saint, takes place in the same venue and is shown from the same vantage point as the previous scene of preaching. However, Maulbertsch wanted to avoid the banality of repeating the secondary figures, with which he managed to increase the expressive force of the pictorial sequence, creating a dramatic turmoil that had swept all off their places except the protagonist. In terms of classical rhetoric, the style of the three ceiling frescoes corresponds to Quintilian's second category, the sublime and vehement mode of representation (genus sublime, genus vehemens) aimed to move the recipient. The major instrument of emotional influencing is the contrast between the painterly characterization of the crowd and the protagonist, the former becoming the vehicle of pathos, the latter of ethos: the crowd is increasingly overcome by pathos, while the main character is vested by the painter with external signs of the ethos of sanctity more and more clearly: from the humbly kneeling deacon he first becomes a faith-inspired preacher and finally a chosen one initiated in the celestial secrets. The contrasting of these two qualities turn the narrative unfolding in the three frescoes tragic in the Aristotelian sense: Stephen's life on earth meets with a cruel end the monstrosity of which is conveyed by increasingly more vehement pathetic pictures to the viewer. Maulbertsch planned to include the high altar picture into this context but there is no knowing of his solution as the bishop turned down his sketch and had the high altar painted by Hubert Maurer.
The vision of heaven has a crucial role in the cycle, for the celestial sphere, the promise of salvation ensures in the plot the reversal of fortune, the auspicious denouement. The earthly events stir the recipients' emotions but the involvement of justice in afterlife calms them and thus perfect catharsis can happen. The change of fate in the third fresco is related to the moment of recognition. Through the great masters of the 16–17th centuries, pathos theory and the conception of peripeteia became the fundamental, even commonplace pictorial narrative method of history painting and Tridentine religious art of the early modern age. With the Pápa ceiling frescoes Maulbertsch gave evidence of his broad pictorial culture by choosing from among these visual panels and formulas with a keen eye and shaping them to his own liking.