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Saint Sebastian

Saint Sebastian tended by Irene

Georges de La Tour (1593-1652). Musée du Louvre – Paris. 1649.

Saint Sebastian

Antonello da Messina (1430-1479). Gemäldegalerie – Dresden. 1474-1475.

Saint Sebastian in a rocky Landscape

Marco Zoppo (1433-1478). Courtauld Institute Galleries – London. 1475 – 1478.

The Martyrdom of Sebastian

Hans Memling (active 1465-1499). Le Musée d’Art Ancien – Brussels.

The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian

Antonio del Pollaiuolo (ca. 1431-1498) and Piero del Pollaiuolo (ca. 1443-1496). The National Gallery – London. Ca. 1480.

Saint Sebastian

Vicenzo Poppa (1427 – 1515). Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen – Rotterdam.

Saint Sebastian

Lorenzo Costa (1460-1535). Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence. Ca. 1480.

The Virgin and Child with Saints

Luca Signorelli (1445-1523). The National Gallery – London. Ca. 1480.

Saint Sebastian

Andrea Mantegna (ca. 1435-1506). Musée du Louvre – Paris. Ca. 1480.

Saint Sebastian

Pietro Perugino (1448-1523). Musée du Louvre. Ca. 1499.

The Feast of the Archers

The Frankfurt Master. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten – Antwerp. Ca. 1500.

Saint Sebastian

Louis Brea (1450-1522). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Rouen.

Saint Sebastian

Liberale da Verona (ca. 1445 – 1529/1536). Pinacoteca di Brera – Milan.

The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian

Hans Holbein the Elder. Alte Pinakothek – München. 1516.

The Madonna and child with Saint Sebastian and Saint Roche

Bernardo Luini (1460-1532). The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art – Sarasota. 1522.

Saint Sebastian

Giovanni Luteri called Dosso Dossi (ca. 1489 – 1542). Pinacoteca di Brera – Milan.

Saint Sebastian

Jan Van Scorel (1495-1562). Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen – Rotterdam. 1542.

Saint Sebastian

Tiziano Vecellio called Titian (ca. 1488-1578). The Hermitage State Museum – Saint Petersburg. 1575.

Saint Sebastian saved by the Angels

Giulio Cesare Procaccini (1570-1625). Le Musée d’Art Ancien – Brussels. 1609.

Saint Sebastian

Jusepe Leonardo (1601-1653). Museo Nacional del Prado – Madrid.

Saint Sebastian

Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie - Berlin. Around 1618.

Saint Sebastian

Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). Musée du Louvre – Paris.

Saint Sebastian

Nicolas Régnier (1591-1667). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Rouen. 1624.

Saint Sebastian attended by Saint Irene

Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588-1629). Allen Memorial Art Museum – Oberlin (Ohio). 1625.

Saint Sebastian

Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652). Musée Malraux – Le Havre. 1630.

Saint Sebastian

Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652). Museo Nacional del Prado – Madrid. Around 1640.

Saint Sebastian tended by Saint Irene

Luca Giordano (1634-1705). The National Gallery of Ireland – Dublin. Around 1650.

Saint Sebastian lying

Giacomo Farelli. Château de Villandry – Villandry, France.

Saint Sebastian and Saint Irene

Antonio Molinari. The Hermitage State Museum – Saint Petersburg. Ca. 1690-1700.

Saint Sebastian

Camille Corot (1796-1875). The Louvre – Paris. 1850-1855.

Saint Sebastian

Odilon Redon (1840-1916). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Bordeaux. Ca. 1910.

The Archers of Saint Sebastian

Anto Carte. Le Musée de l’Art Wallon – Liège. 1920.

Saint Sebastian

Jean Schaack. Musée d’Histoire et d’Art – Luxembourg. 1926.

De La Tour’s Sebastian

Would you expect Georges de La Tour’s painting of ‘Saint Sebastian tended by Irene’ to be a painting of the seventeenth century? I wouldn’t. It is so different from everything else of that century. It makes one think of a cubist’s painting, or of one of the modern unconventional twentieth century pictures. But this painting really stems of the seventeenth, so we must have here in de La Tour one of the most original, individual, independent artists of that century. De La Tour was entirely his own man in art.

Sebastian is shown almost dead, pierced with one arrow straight through his lungs. It is night, darkness is everywhere. He seems to be lying next to the tree against which he was shot; the ropes with which the saint was bound still wind around the tree. Irene has come, holding a bright, straight torch. There is no wind; the flames burn high, perturbed only at the top. The light of the torch is very white and this white falls on Irene’s cap, her face, her dress of weak pastel orange. This orange continues in the colour of flesh of Sebastian’s naked, contorted body. The light also falls here, but not farther than Sebastian’s upwardly curved legs. Away and behind Irene stand three other women. Their colours are dark blue to emphasise the night and the distance, shining square blue, and for grieve the same fleshy hue as Sebastian’s body.

The painting has strong structure of composition, in two triangles. One triangle is formed by Sebastian’s body as base, another side line going from his head to Irene’s head and the third side line goes over Sebastian’s curved leg to the arm and further again to Irene’s cap. The three heads of the mourning women form another triangle. The triangles are quite distant, separate. So that we have one separate scene with Sebastian and Irene, that remains by its isolation intimate. Irene holds in a real link Sebastian’s hand. Sebastian and Irene are the essence of compassion and love, of two people inextricably linked in time and space by feelings of empathy.

The painting would have lost dramatic expression without the three bystanders. One can only be alone and separate when the separation itself is shown, explicited. Yet, there is also a link –though weak- between Sebastian and Irene on the one hand and the rest of the world on the other. The connection is made by the woman in the long, dark blue dress resting her hand on Irene’s shoulder. But this is not a hold, not a gesture of consolation. The woman simply poses her hand lightly on Irene; there is no act of possession, no real touching. The mere touch means understanding but nothing more. The distance is respected.

Georges de La Tour

Georges de La Tour could paint pictures and portraits to all detail of every wrinkle in a face. He has shown he could do that, in other paintings. Yet in this painting, the faces remain anonymous, almost blank. Sebastian’s is hidden in the dark, Irene’s is only partly lit and then still the part we cannot see. The face of the woman in dark blue is reduced to simple forms. The praying half-figure in shining blue has a face that is only suggested. The upper lady is weeping and thus hides her face. De La Tour suggests that the drama and passion of the scene is important, not the individuals. It emphasises the pain of Sebastian, the dying, the emotion and not any detail. The emotion becomes thus detached from the world, transcendental. The image is reduced to its essence.

This kind of feeling contrasts very much with the other French paintings of the seventeenth century. It contrasts with the Baroque paintings of Nicolas Régnier, of Claude Vignon, Valentin de Boulogne, Simon Vouet and even more with those of Nicolas Poussin, Claude Gellée le Lorrain, Eustache Le Sueur and others who took again to themes of Antiquity. Georges de La Tour went back to the basics, the foundation, and the essence of emotion and expression. His 'Saint Sebastian and Irene' is the painting in which he reached a pictography that is above his century.

Georges de La Tour arrived there through his studies of light and darkness. More than any even later painter, he was interested in the effects of light on subjects. He applied it in many of his paintings and went ever farther in using the results. De La Tour used a point source of light, the torch, to show his vision. It takes an extraordinary skill of knowledge, technique, memory of scenes, and painterly talent to depict the light falling thus from one point on the figures. De La Tour mastered these skills so that his picture was a technical challenge that he resolved easily. When one continues to play with light and dark areas in scenes, ultimately one arrives at a kind of sublimation of the subject matter like in this Saint Sebastian. De La Tour was an experimenter who pursued his ideas as far as he could, individually, independent of any other art streams. He worked also as an independent, in the France of the seventeenth century, but isolated from Paris where the real action was.

La Lorraine

Georges de La Tour was born in Vic-sur-Seille near the Lorraine town of Metz in 1593. He worked and died however in Lunéville, the residence town of the Dukes of Lorraine. The Lorraine Duchy is in the Northeast of France, today only separated from Germany by the Alsace. Lorraine has a history that is of the most complex in Europe because this was border territory, trapped between France and Germany. It was the remnant of the Middle-Frankish Empire that was created when Charlemagne divided his lands in three parts in the ninth century. This Kingdom was further divided when Lotharius I also divided his land among his three sons. Lotharius II thus reigned over the territory between the Rhine, Meuse, Saône and Schelde. The country was called ‘Lotharii Regnum’ and from that received its name. After battles, around 925 the Roman Catholic German Emperor Henry I recognised his stepson Giselbert as Duke of Lorraine and so Lorraine became a part of the German Empire, not of the Kingdom of France. In 1048 Lorraine separated from the Netherlands and from then on, the name was associated only with the parts that are now in France, but the territory was somewhat larger than now and had as its main cities Trier, Metz, Verdun, Toul, Nancy. The title of Duke did over the centuries not bear much power, because the Lorraine counties of Voudémont, Bar and Salm as well as the bishoprics of Verdun, Metz and Toul were very independent. The bishoprics went to France in 1552, leaving only a very patchwork Lorraine Duchy.

In the beginning of the seventeenth century France was governed by Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIII and his mother Maria de Medici. The three hated, respected, fought each other more or less openly, but united against common enemies. They would die within one year of each other, Richelieu and Maria in 1642, the King in 1643. Richelieu wanted absolute power for the King and fought French nobles all the time, and naturally also the Lorraine Dukes who were as vassals of the German Emperor so close to core French land, a thorn in his eye.

From 1624 on, in the lifetime of Georges de La Tour, the Duke in Lunéville was wild Charles III. In 1631 Richelieu forced on this Charles III a treaty, signed in the town of Vic where Georges de La Tour was born, which subdued Lorraine to France although Lorraine was in feudal dependence of the German Emperor. By this treaty Charles had agreed to imprison French rebels and had to give free throughway to French armies who would fight the German Emperors over the Rhine. Charles kept supporting French nobles against Richelieu however, so Richelieu once again entered Lorraine with an army, forced a new peace at Liverdun. At each peace treaty Lorraine lost land: the County of Clermont, the fortresses of Marsal, Stenay, Jamez. Trier also was occupied by force. The fortifications of Nancy were to be destroyed. In 1633 Richelieu and Louis XIII found new reasons to attack Charles III. The Duke had to fight a Swedish army first and lost a battle at Hagenau, so he humbly invited King Louis XIII into Nancy. A new treaty with France was concluded in Neuville. Charles’ brother Cardinal François de Lorraine negotiated. Lorraine came definitely under French influence. Charles III left government to his brother and went to Austria to start a military career as a noted general for the German Emperor.

Cardinal François of Lorraine then started to call himself Duke and married. Richelieu qualified this marriage illegal and had his Marshal La Force imprison François in Lunéville. François escaped soon and would lead an adventurous life with his wife in Florence and Vienna, but Lorraine was now fully occupied by the French. The territory would remain totally governed by the French from 1634 to 1661, occupied for twenty-seven years. Lorraine was relatively peaceful after 1634, but wars waged in the Alsace region between France and the German Emperor, just to its eastern border. Wars waged also to the West. The painter Peeter Snayers thus made a picture of the battle for the town of Thionville.

In 1641 Charles III threw himself once more to the feet of King Louis XIII. Cardinal Richelieu, who wanted the Lorraine region by law and not just by force to belong to France, granted pardon. The wild Charles III however soon joined again Spanish and German forces. France occupied Lorraine once more. Charles III only received a further reduced Lorraine back after the Spanish-French wars, at the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1661.

His nephew, Charles IV, followed on Charles III of Lorraine. This Duke without a land was an excellent general, who would lead the German Empire armies in the wars against the Turks and even against the French. He defended Vienna with Johan Sobieski and took Buda castle in Hungary from the Turks in 1686. Gyula Benczur, a Hungarian painter of the nineteenth century painted him together with Eugene of Savoie recapturing Buda castle. The last half of the seventeenth century in France was first Mazarin’s, then Louis XIV’s. During their conquests in the North of France Louis XIV again occupied Lorraine in 1670. So Charles IV lost his Duchy completely, but his son regained it in 1697 at the Peace of Rijswijk. Lorraine would then become fully under French influence and in the nineteenth century be reduced to a province of France. But the House of Lorraine did not disappear. It reached its highest glory by obtaining the Duchy of Tuscany in 1737. Descendants of the now Habsburg-Lorraine would govern as Dukes of Tuscany from out of the Pitti Palace of Florence where once the Medicis had ruled but from which that illustrious family had finally disappeared without heirs.

Georges de La Tour worked in this Lorraine and its provincial residence Lunéville, far from Paris with all its sophisticated painters dedicated to the gallantries of the court of the Kings of France, far from the Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin. It may explain some of de La Tour’s individualism. The people from Lorraine are headstrong, independent, proud but resigned. They will accept any rule but notwithstanding that rule keep their own culture and beliefs. We have only around forty paintings left of the very individual painter Georges de La Tour. He was also the only renowned painter of Lorraine, who could therefore impose his artistic visions on his environment. The painting of Saint Sebastian was commissioned by the town of Lunéville and offered in 1649 to the French Governor La Ferté. It is a late work, in which Georges de La Tour fully developed his style to the maturity of the essentials. He died in 1652.

Saint Sebastian

Saint Sebastian was a Roman martyr. He was a captain of the Praetorian guards of the Roman Emperor Diocletian around 290. Sebastian was a Christian E5 . He supported other martyrs while they were imprisoned. Such as the twin brothers Mark and Marcellian who had received some stay of execution and whose families and friends tried to withdraw them from the true faith. Sebastian on the contrary encouraged them in their Christian faith. Fabian, the prefect, persecuted the Christians and denounced Sebastian to Emperor Diocletian. Diocletian reproached Sebastian of ungratefulness and ordered him to death. He was tied to a stake. Mauritanian archers shot Sebastian. They pierced him according to the ‘Golden Legend’ with so many arrows that he looked like a porcupine G49 . He was left for dead. Sebastian was thrown in the gutters, but found by a Christian woman Irene and tended by her. Apparently none of his vital organs were touched. The widow Irene nursed him back to health. Therefore Irene is now the patron saint of nurses. Sebastian recovered, and confronted again the emperor with a renewed avowal of faith. He was then beaten to death with cudgels and finally thrown in the Cloaca Maxima of Rome, the main sewers, to prevent the Christians from honouring Sebastian as a saint. But Sebastian appeared to Saint Lucina, revealed where his body was and was duly buried by the Christians G49 . His early tomb was in the Saint Balbina catacomb of Rome. A church was built in his name. From before the Middle Ages, during Roman times, the Church of Saint Sebastian of the Catacombs was a much sought after pilgrimage site.

Saint Sebastian became of course the patron saint of archers. You can still visit for instance the house of the Sebastian Guild of Archers in Bruges, Flanders. One of the earliest paintings by a Flemish Primitive painter is a picture made by Hans Memling, who worked in Bruges. The picture was probably made for a guild of archers. Sebastian is a beautiful youth in this image, serene in front of the archers and oblivious, even stoical to the piercing arrows. The archers have long bows, which they tend and fire.

The archers’ guilds had an important position in medieval towns, especially in the defence of the walls. They were the main defenders of the towns and thus stood as symbols of the autonomy of the cities. The Frankfurt Master was a painter who worked mostly in the port of Antwerp, not so far from Bruges. He painted in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. He made a picture testifying to the importance of the archers’ guilds in the Middle Ages. The ‘Archers’ Feast’ shows many different scenes of a gathering of the guild. The mayor of the town, or the best archer of the contest and thus the ‘King’, is seated in the middle of the scene on a throne under the town’s key. Jesters have been invited to enjoy the feasters. People chat and discuss all around. Elegant young men pay their court to the ladies. Apples are picked, and brought to the children that are playing in the grass. The imposing castles and defences of the town are topped by long, flowing colours. All this shows us the socialising power of the archers’ guilds in medieval towns.

Saint Sebastian was painted from very early times on. There are mosaics in Ravenna, representations in the church of Saint Peters’ Chains of the late seventh century, frescoes in the Saint Saba church of the eighth century. He was much painted in the fifteenth, sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. Old frescoes from before the tenth century show Sebastian as a venerable grey-bearded officer. These frescoes however already started to depict Sebastian in the nude, with many arrows piercing him. Nude pictures of Sebastian and of a young man are very old too, dating from before the Middle Ages. Images of Sebastian with Irene only seem to appear in the seventeenth century.

Sebastian’s martyrdom was a reference to the passion of Jesus. Jesus and Sebastian both died in almost the same position tied to a pole. Jesus suffered the flagellation tied to a column. Sebastian was shot with arrows against a tree but we will see that rapidly in the hagiography of Sebastian painters also placed him against a column. Sebastian was shot against a tree, but he did not die there so he suffered torture only by the arrows. Sebastian recovered from his torture; Jesus resurrected. Irene tended Sebastian. Mary Magdalene anointed Jesus. Images of the Pietà of Mary and Jesus find a similar duality in Sebastian compassionately helped by Irene. Saint Sebastian is always painted pierced with arrows against a pillar or tree, never in the scene where he is clubbed to death. Such a scene would annihilate the analogy with the passion of Christ.

Sebastian was also much venerated and prayed to as a figure that had suffered torture but had survived. His cult grew during the plague epidemics in Rome of 767 and even later during the general European plague years of the middle of the fourteenth century, around 1348. Sebastian had suffered but survived and that image was one of the rare example of hope for people caught in plague epidemics. Sebastian was also venerated as the saint who could divert and protect from the plague. He was one of the Plague Saints.

Italian Renaissance paintings

The interest in paintings of Saint Sebastian for art historians lies in the fact that they can follow with pictures of this theme the evolution of male nude painting. We know the interest of Italian artists in man, so their painters almost all painted at one moment or other of their career a Saint Sebastian.

Marco Zoppo, a Bolognese who painted much of his life in Venice, was one of the early painters of Saint Sebastian scenes. On his painting of the Courtauld Institutes, Sebastian is bound one arm up and another curved behind his back. This pose curves also the body and shows all the muscles of this soldier-picture. The picture is an example of the first male nudes in Italian painting which emphasise the anatomy of muscles of a man and which became common from that period on, also in pictures of Jesus. We also find here the soft colours of Venice.

Around the same time, around 1475, Antonello da Messina arrived in Venice. Antonello knew oil painting and brought this technique to the lagoon town. His Sebastian is in serene calm as confronted to pain. The nude figure of the saint is bathed in light, but shadows are applied so that the contrast between presence and absence of light creates the form of the body and lends it volume. It was very early for a painter to use this technique and it can be seen that Antonello da Messina mastered the technique already to perfection. Sebastian’s body is young and soft. The scene is set in an Italian Renaissance town as background. This landscape is hard and angular. It contrasts with the soft body of Sebastian, creating an effect of solitude, the effect of separation between Sebastian and the daily world that we find in many other painters, an effect that was certainly also the objective of Antonello. Antonello da Messina made very inspiring, idealistic and dignified paintings of Jesus and his Sebastian follows these examples.

Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo worked together on their Saint Sebastian of Renaissance Florence. Marvellous in this painting is the landscape of the Arno River around Florence. The scene has thus been brought from Rome where Sebastian was really martyred, to the environment of Florence. The painting was made for the Oratory of Saint Sebastian, which was attached to the church of the Saints Annunziata of Florence U1 . Sebastian is represented as a new Christ, bound high on a tree as if on a cross. Archers all around are either shooting arrows in his body or preparing their bows. The Pollaiuolo’s made wonderful studies of the heavy muscled archers in effort. This is the real objective of the painting: the joy of the painter to depict these torsos as studies of nudes and men in action. Their Sebastian seems to suffer and thus holds his head inclined in pain, but his face is directed to the skies and remains serene. His body is still young and less muscled than those of the archers, so more elevated.

In the Luca Signorelli painting, Sebastian is standing pierced with arrows on one side next to the Virgin who has on the other side Saint ChristinaU1. The saint seems oblivious of the arrows in his body, but has his hands still bound behind his back. Luca Signorelli used Sebastian – and the angels above - to show his art in painting a nude, just as the Pollaiuolo’s had done.

Pietro Perugino was the early Renaissance painter who had the most idealised vision of religious themes. His Sebastian is traditional in composition. Sebastian is set against a column like a flagellated Jesus Christ. He has one arrow in an arm, another in his shoulder. His arms are bound behind his body. Perugino set this scene in a Roman palace with elaborately decorated square columns and a clear open landscape behind Sebastian. Sebastian’s body is one of the most beautiful and perfect of the Renaissance. Perugino made the link with Christ’s martyrdom very clear. The column was introduced gradually in Renaissance pictures of Sebastian. Remark how in Antonello da Messina’s picture Sebastian is still situated against a tree but pieces of a Roman column appear at his feet. Perugino and Mantegna extended this vision and placed Sebastian’s martyrdom against a column, thus making the parallel with Christ'’ martyrdom more immediate. Perugino made of Sebastian a very beautiful youth. His Sebastian is an image of a Roman Adonis sculpture and the Roman statues that became to be sought after in the Renaissance probably inspired Perugino. Yet Perugino’s Sebastian is also one of the first examples of an effeminate youth, in which male stubbornness needs to be sought far. Sebastian is an Adonis aspiring to the spiritual death in which he will revive in an ethereal form, neither male nor female. These pictures epitomise the dual vision of the Renaissance. They blend a religious theme with a nostalgia and revival of the ideals of classical Greek beauty ideals of the human body.

Liberale da Verona was a painter of the Veneto and his ‘Sebastian’ is depicted in Venice. This picture also is a study of the human nude. A magnificent, very dignified Sebastian is serenely standing against a tree, hands bound in his back, oblivious of the arrows that pierce his body. The scene of the martyrdom is set against a background of Venetian canals. A story of intrigue and death unfolds behind the saint. A fallen Roman column is the symbol of the new times announced by Jesus and the martyrs.

The androgynous Sebastian

Lorenzo Costa, a painter from Ferrara, showed Sebastian as a very young, effeminate male, likewise with his hands bound behind him. It is a lovely painting, but we feel that something else is showing here. Costa transgresses a border. He changes Sebastian to an attractive youth and thus may have been one of the firsts to start inspiring images of more ambiguous feelings. Bernardo Luini’s later picture continues this representation of Sebastian as a beautiful youth. And yes, the martyrdom of Sebastian transpierced with arrows can have meanings of hard sexuality. Masochism is a sexual perversion, involving one’s own pain or humiliation. Images of the martyrdom of Sebastian have been used to represent these emotions. The Japanese writer of the twentieth century Yukio Mishima trained his body until he was muscled as an experienced body-builder. Then he had photographs made of himself in poses of classic nude. He posed also as a Saint Sebastian, hands tied in the back. Pictures of Sebastian are thus a universal imagery, capable of inspiring respectful adoration of the martyrdom of one of the early church saints but on the other hand also of masochistic perversion. Later still, in our Post-Modern artistic trends, the photographers Pierre et Gilles made series of photographs of young boys in the midst of forests, posing as the nude Sebastian pierced with arrows.

The effeminate presentation of Saint Sebastian is most visible in the Vicenzo Poppa painting of the martyrdom in the ruins of the Campus Martius of Rome. The Sebastian is in a traditional pose, but his face could be of a girl and his hair falls long on his shoulders in golden curls. It is far from certain that in these representations should be found homosexual reminiscences. Costa and Poppa may have emphasised the youthful appearance of Jesus, his idealised sexless appearance. The ‘Golden Legend’ would have said of Jesus, as of John the Evangelist, that he had chosen to remain a virgin. The artists may have stressed the universality of his life and message, not just in male but also in female sense. They built upon a tradition of depicting Jesus in an androgynous way.

Another picture, entirely in this view of Sebastian, is Dosso Dossi’s painting in the Pinacoteca di Brera of Milan. A very young Sebastian is posed like a dancer, in a waving, tortuous, alluring movement of the body, standing with upheaved hands, against a tree. A luxurious green cloak folds from his back around him as if nature were enveloping the body. The tree holds oranges, always a symbol of the original sin. Jerome arches in one movement, the tree in another and thus Sebastian and wild nature are almost in an intimate embrace. Dosso Dossi was a Ferrarese painter who glorified the plastic elements in the human body as can be seen in this ‘Sebastian’.

Hans Holbein the Elder and German Sebastians

Hans Holbein the Elder painted a scene of Sebastian’s martyrdom in 1516, at the time he withdrew in the cloister of Isenheim, the cloister in which Grünewald had just finished his famous altar-piece. Holbein died in Isenheim in 1524. So, this is a relatively late work. He painted it as a Sebastian altarpiece for the Saint Saviour church of Augsburg where he was born in 1465 and where he was also established as a painter. It was the middle piece of a triptych, with Saint Barbara on the left panel and Saint Elisabeth on the right. Holbein’s painting resembles much the earlier work of the Pollauiolo’s. Sebastian is against a tree, bound but with one arm upwards, the other hangs down. Archers are all around. Just as in the Pollaiuolo scene an archer to the left is taking aim, another archer is charging his crossbow below, still other archers are tending their bows on the right. The archer in the lower left is in blue uniform, just as in the Pollaiuolo painting. The background is formed by a landscape; here a medieval fortified town. The Pollaiuolo landscape is definitely Renaissance; here we are still in the Gothic of the Middle Ages. The realism of the North is also clear: the faces of the archers are grim, very intense, and all different.

One senses something of the roughness and the cruelty of Holbein’s times in the German states, in the meticulousness by which the crossbows, swords, daggers are painted. These must have taken an important place in Holbein’s life. Sebastian is drawn amidst this cruelty as a serene young body, against a blood-red robe, but with a strange bearded head clearly in pain. Beard and hair are of the same brown as the tree, building a link between Sebastian and the tree. Sebastian resembles a faun. And the tree has strange horn-like structures, which make us think of representations of horned Satan, the devil. The horns surround Sebastian and protrude even between his arms, as if Sebastian was in the grip of the devil. Did Holbein want to warn the viewer of the potential dangers of the ambiguous image of Sebastian?

A French-Italian Sebastian: Louis Brea

A Sebastian of loneliness is Louis Brea’s painting. Brea was born and worked in the Provence in southern France. He worked around Nice, but also in Tuscany in Italy. His Sebastian is standing on a pole high above a landscape of turreted castles. The pole rises out of the abysses. Sebastian is posed nonchalantly and he looks in the far, oblivious of the arrows in his body. Brea has painted Sebastian as a symbol, not as a suffering man. The painting dates from the turn of the fifteenth to the sixteenth century and it looks primitive as compared to some of its Italian examples. But the vision is well depicted and the composition of the picture is individual.

Andrea Mantegna

The most impressive Saint Sebastian of the late fifteenth century is Andrea Mantegna’s. Saint Sebastian is bound to a pillar and pierced with many arrows. Here also he seems oblivious of the pain, with a serene body. Mantegna inspires again a static impression to the viewer, his particular style in most of his paintings. The whole scene is deliberately artificial, intellectual, so different from the real world. It is a typical Mantegna exercise in theatrical static drama, by which the painter emphasises the difference between reality and artistic expression.

Most remarkable is Mantegna’s head of Sebastian. Andrea Mantegna painted Sebastian as a mature man, in whose face one can see all the experience, worries, hardships of an older warrior. Sebastian is very sad, almost crying at the injustice. He sends his eyes to the skies, to new hope. The arrows that pierce him in all directions are long, unworldly. By drawing the antique pillar behind Sebastian to such prominence, creating a dream-like and unreal environment, Mantegna sets Sebastian out of time. This is the classic Sebastian painting that can defy the ages. The background is formed by an Italian landscape, in which the metallic curves of Mantegna’s landscapes can be recognised. It is a typical Mantegna landscape with towns and fortresses on high hills.

Tiziano Vecellio

Tiziano’s Saint Sebastian of the Saint Petersburg Hermitage is a very late work, made in the last years of his life around 1575. Tiziano’s colour palette had darkened, although the saint is completely shown in light. Man and nature are one, in a turmoil that announces the end of the world or the end of a soul. This is more a Christ figure, in which the sufferings of ages are all brought together. It is a Sebastian in torment and the colours and forms announce a new vision of paintings: touches and patches in rapid brushes as the Impressionist painters would use, and a force of expression as would only be reached again in the twentieth century.


Giulio Procaccini painted mainly in Milan. He painted in the Mannerist way and took on the subject of Saint Sebastian more than once. His Saint Sebastian of the Brussels Museum is in that style. In this picture, movement is the main theme. Sebastian and the angels are embraced in one flowing movement of limbs and bodies. Sebastian still hangs with one hand on a tree, but the angels are liberating him. The angels are gently drawing the arrows from Sebastian’s bodies, thus saving him from death. Sebastian’s body is devoid of wounds, an occasion for Procaccini to show an unblemished male nude in all its splendour. Most important for Procaccini was the painting of the male nudes, not just in Sebastian but also in the young boys or angels.

Jan Van Scorel and Dutch Sebastians

Jan Van Scorel, a Dutch painter of Utrecht, born in 1495 and who died in 1562, painted a Sebastian as a study after Michelangelo. Van Scorel remained many years in Italy, Venice and Rome, when he was young and was very drawn to Italian Mannerism. But he was a late Renaissance man, an architect and waterworks engineer. His Sebastian is in a non-conformist pose with one leg uplifted and hands over the head as if covering for a near disaster. His ‘Martyrdom of Sebastian’ was painted after a figure of the ‘Last Judgement’ of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican. The figure is on the lower left of Michelangelo’s painting, and indeed a figure waiting to be drawn into hell. Michelangelo’s work dates from 1541, Van Scorel of 1542, so his Sebastian is one of the first copies ever out of Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’.

Dutch and Flemish Baroque paintings

Very different from former presentations of Saint Sebastian are the paintings of the seventeenth century. By looking at the Georges de La Tour painting, one could forget that his was the time of late Mannerism and of Baroque. Hendrick ter Brugghen was such a late Mannerist. He was a Dutch painter who worked mostly in Utrecht, but he had been to Rome and studied Caravaggio. One of his major works is the ‘Saint Sebastian attended by Irene’. Ter Brugghen throws a very white, eerie light on Sebastian’s side as the women lower him from the tree against which he was shot. Irene delicately draws out an arrow from his body. Ter Brugghen shows Sebastian as a man in silent suffering for his faith, but helped by the unselfish charity of Irene. The heads of Sebastian and Irene are so close to each other, that we find here a rare message of human solidarity and of human bondage.

The most famous painter of the Baroque period was Rubens. Pieter Paul Rubens’ Sebastian is shown in full pathos. The head is contorted to depict the pain of martyrdom. Sebastian’s body is full-fleshed, as in most Rubens paintings. It is again a study of the nude. Rubens painted Sebastian in the same attitude as Mantegna, but the saint’s body is more curved and the setting is in a scene of nature. Sebastian is bound against a tree. The background is a landscape of nature. An arrow holder and arch are on the ground in a still life, which was a popular genre in northern paintings. Rubens also uses light and darkness, brings Sebastian in full light and nature behind him in shadows. In that way the shapes of the body could be emphasised to all the pathos that is characteristic of Rubens’ pictures.

Rubens’ most promising pupil was Anthony van Dyck. Van Dyck soon established his own workshop in Antwerp and travelled to Italy, in the example of his master. Van Dyck’s composition shows a Sebastian in a slanting position, in the line of a diagonal of the frame. Van Dyck had learned well Rubens’ lessons of using slanting lines to renovate views. Two angels are in the left triangle and one of them delicately pulls an arrow out of the Saint’s chest, thereby saving him. Van Dyck was one of few painters showing the moment when divine intervention saves Sebastian a first time and that can come as something of a surprise because the whole main religious meaning of the legend lies in this fact. Van Dyck stressed the empathy of the heavens for Sebastian. He also showed the suffering of the tortured human Sebastian in a very tender way.

Spanish and Neapolitan Sebastians of the Baroque

Jose de Ribera painted Sebastian like Rubens against a tree in a picture of the Madrilene Prado Museum. Sebastian’s arms are not bound in the back anymore, but tied above the head, more suggesting Jesus. Ribera likewise makes Sebastian in this picture a powerfully muscled man. The position of the head remains classic uplifted.

Much more powerful is Ribera’s painting of the Malraux Museum of Le Havre. Ribera was born in Jativa in Spain in 1591 but he worked for the largest part of his career in Naples, Italy, and where he also died in 1562. He arrived in Naples in 1616 and he painted in a rare mixture of Neapolitan Baroque, used the contrasts between dark and light in the best Caravaggio style and with the passion and gloom of a true Spaniard. Ribera made a very striking, a surprising Saint Sebastian thus once more showing his force and individualism. Ribera uses fully the style of Caravaggio in order to make the paleness of the nude body of Sebastian to contrast in the painting. Caravaggio had stayed in Naples in 1616-1617 as well as in 1619 and he had shown his style there to be learnt by Ribera. Ribera gave Sebastian a dramatic pose with outstretched, imploring arms. This pose reminds strongly of the crucifixion of Jesus. And since Sebastian is all gleaming with intense light, sure to come back to life, the picture also reminds of Jesus’s resurrection. Sebastian is a young man in this image so that Ribera could delect in his young body, which is not yet so muscular as the body of a Roman soldier and without hair on breasts and shoulders. The lines of the ropes around the body can accentuate the earthly bonds of a body that could otherwise have belonged to an angel. Ribera accentuated thus other lines like the arrow, the rope of the loincloth.

The composition and visual effect on the viewer of this Sebastian is very strong. Ribera has put Sebastian all along the diagonal of the frame, where we recognise Caravaggio’s influence in a very unconventional pose. The colours are few; the whole scene is in soft browns. The landscape is frugal, simple, restrained, as if Ribera had wanted to paint a picture of classical antiquity. As on other classical pictures we have a feeling of loneliness, of cold, of placement out of any space and time. This makes the picture all the more remarkable. Jusepe de Ribera has shown with this painting all the intensity of his own feelings.

Jusepe Leonardo, a Spanish painter who worked mainly in Saragossa in the seventeenth century, has shown the preparation of the torture of Sebastian. The saint is being bound at arms and feet. Leonardo uses Sebastian to paint a male nude. Through the binding Sebastian’s torso is pushed somewhat forward in the full light, his head is held backwards. This image is a fine example of Sebastian used to depict the male nude; the body is kept young and athletic. It is not so much the body of a soldier as the body of a young man without blemish as one could expect of a saint.

Luca Giordano of Naples’ representation of Sebastian joins Georges de La Tour’s. Sebastian is away from the pillar, found by Irene. Light and shadow are here also applied in the new seventeenth century way. The symbolism of Jesus is deliberately stressed here, as one could expect of a painter who was once a pupil to the Spanish Jose de Ribera: Sebastian’s arms form a cross. Irene as a Mary Magdalene tends to his wounds. The body is a poor body here, older, thinner, with longer stretched and more worn-out muscles. The emotions of helplessness are explicitly shown, just as one would expect of a Christ figure.

The Roman painter Giacomo Farelli was a competitor of Luca Giordano. His Saint Sebastian is reduced to a torso coming out of the night. It is a pain-distorted torso suddenly shown to us out of the dark of times and we expect it to disappear again. The drama is reduced to its essentials.

In Venice’s painting art of the seventeenth century, Sebastian is also present, as shows Antonio Molinari’s picture. Sebastian’s body is turned against a tree, one hand bound above his head, the other on his back so that the full light can fall on his athletic body. This is again an exercise in painting of a nude male body. But Irene who has come with balms for Sebastian’s wounds makes the picture complete. A second Roman woman is untying Sebastian. Saint Sebastian’s body is completely lit, whereas his head is in darkness. The painting is in the soft colours of Venice, the flesh tones contrast nicely with the red cloak thrown on the ground and the soft red gown of the Roman woman. The structure of the scene is in an Andrew’s cross: one line goes from the bottom left of the armour to the red cloak, then over the body to the red dress of the Roman woman. The second crossing line goes from the head of Irene to Sebastian’s head and the high hand in the top left corner. It is thus a painting in a strong composition and soft colours, announcing the later famous Venetians Pittoni and Tiepolo.

A French Sebastian

Sebastian was a theme taken up by painters of all countries: Italy, Flanders, Spain, and also by French painters. Nicolas Régnier was born in 1591 in Maubeuge of northern France but he first had an apprenticeship in Flanders and then left for Rome. He died in Venice in 1667. The major French painter who revived French classical art, Simon Vouet, influenced him, and he studied with other painters of Rome. Nicolas Régnier made a Sebastian in contrasts of light and darkness and using a Sebastian theme not unlike Georges de la Tour’s although Nicolas Régnier’s picture dates from almost three decades earlier. Sebastian is lying on the ground; the full light is thrown on his body. Régnier has not shown a body transpierced with arrows. He only suggests the death by arrows by showing some of the arrows next to the body. The body’s pose is unconventional since it is reversed so that the head is closest to the viewer and the body recedes from the lower border of the frame. Sebastian is lying peacefully as if sleeping, while Irene and another woman are tending him. The faces and necks of these women are equally lighted intensely as is the body of Sebastian. These patches of lighted flesh gleam out of the picture, underscoring the human drama. The women are quite present amongst them; they are talking and referring to each other. The sleeping Sebastian is in another place, separate. We have seen these emotions and this distance in Georges de la Tour’s painting. Régnier had a French tradition in the making. Régnier’s picture can have inspired also other painters. Like a ‘Venus weeping over Adonis’, to be found in the museum of Caen, made by Nicolas Poussin in 1625. Who copied whom?

Sebastian in later centuries

The theme of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian continued to interest painters to our days. As an example we present first the expressionist picture of Jean Schaack, a local Luxemburg painter. Sebastian is shown against a haunting landscape of barren mountains and at night. He already wears the saintly halo. The killing soldiers are still riding past on their horses. The image is one of mystic death confronted with a dangerous world.

Camille Corot, the French Realist painter occasionally made pictures of religious themes, mostly portraits of monks. His Saint Sebastian remains an exceptional painting for this artist. Corot painted Sebastian with hands held above the head against a tree as in the first images of old. He painted Sebastian’s nude body in dirty yellow with grey patches and the whole picture is in grey tones, denoting correctly the sadness of the scene.

The French Symbolist painters Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) and Odilon Redon (1840-1916) made several paintings of Sebastian. Moreau followed the tradition of a Sebastian depicted as a youth with an almost female body.

Odilon Redon was all colours, all dreams and all mind-images. His Sebastians express the solitude of the artist. The pastel drawing of Bordeaux shows a Sebastian entirely alone in a wide, cool landscape. A sole leafless tree grows forcefully out of rocks and Sebastian is bound to this only living part of nature that is standing there as if for Sebastian only. Sebastian is shown in full, with long arrows in his sides but the most remarkable are the flowers under his feet that are as so many eyes watching the agony of the saint. For Redon, Sebastian may have been an image of his anxious mind. Redon marvellously put in colours the vague view we all keep in our head of Sebastian: a naked body against a tree, with very little other detail.

Anto Carte was a Walloon (Belgian) painter who deserves to be better known. With two painter-friends he founded the group ‘Nervia’ in 1928. The painters aimed at reaffirming the Walloon presence in art and to support young artists. The group was very diverse. Anto Carte was much influenced by cubism, but also by expressionism and the naïveté of Pieter Bruegel. Carte painted the people of his region, the workers of the Walloon coal mining and heavy steel industry. The tradition of archery continued since the Middle Ages in this region. Carte’s ‘Archers of Saint Sebastian’ show the tired workers with their new, modern bows perpetrate the martyrdom of Sebastian in the twentieth century. The image and spiritual value of Sebastian lived on.

Sebastian, a universal theme

Saint Sebastian was a universal theme in painting. There was a definite need in Western Europe for a patron saint of soldiers, of warriors. Soldiers, especially mercenaries of medieval times, were daily confronted with their death and with the waiting for death. Death was always present, but always to be denied. Saint Sebastian represented this idea: at the same time violent suffering, but a death that was ignored, in which epic heroism could be found, and at least the distant, elusive hope that death could be survived. This image brought the soldiers closer to the epic of the resurrection of Jesus. This primary feeling appealed to all. Sebastian had resurrected from death, so he was called upon for assistance in cases of illnesses where death was almost certain, for the plague. He became one of the Plague Saints. He was the icon of a tortured nude man, from whom everything had been taken away but who had survived by divine powers.

The greatest European painters made it their honour to show their art in painting at least once a Sebastian. They must have considered it an exercise in professionalism by which they could compare themselves over the ages. Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo, Lorenzo Costa, Luca Signorelli, Andrea Mantegna, Hans Holbein the Elder and Bernardo Luini were fifteenth century or early sixteenth century painters of Sebastian. In the seventeenth century Georges De La Tour, Peter Paul Rubens, Jose de Ribera, Luca Giordano, Giacomo Farelli and Antonio Molinari followed them. These were powerful painters from very different countries and centuries in Europe, who did not hesitate in their art.

Sebastian’s martyrdom was not a delicate scene. It was a scene for real men and for powerful painters. We admire the sophistication of the Pollaiuolo painting, the fineness of Lorenzo Costa’s. Rubens and Luca Giordano made probably the most accomplished realistic paintings that show in the most direct, forceful way the passion of Sebastian. Andrea Mantegna’s Sebastian stands alone in a complex, unworldly picture. His Sebastian is the essence of what the martyrdom is about: an image of transcendence, an image of eternally suffering man in an impassible nature. Rubens, Mantegna, and the Pollauiolo’s had very different expressions at the extreme of the same theme.

We saw themes like Saint Jerome and this Saint Sebastian, which stress the differences as well as the similarities in European art and thinking. The themes are the same in Germany, Flanders, France, Italy or Spain. But each painter lived in his own culture and time and represented the theme differently.

There are all those painters of Sebastian over the centuries and the geographies. And then there is Georges de La Tour. De La Tour was of no century, even less of his century than Mantegna, and of all centuries. De La Tour showed a very different Sebastian, a scene that was not classic: no Sebastian standing right, but one found in the gutters and in the dark of night. An expression reduced to the essentials. De La Tour painted areas in light and dark, with soft colours, entirely in gloom. His painting is a mature masterpiece of an artist almost at the end of his life, who must have reached the final way how he wanted to show what was in the depth of his mind. De La Tour did not find it necessary to show his art in comparison with so many other painters. He wanted to show a new Sebastian, one that was his own only. He showed us an abandoned, suffering, tortured man coming out of the darkness to find compassion and love, and a man being cared for a last time by another human. Sebastian and Irene are together isolated in that touching of souls, a theme more universal even than the Saint Sebastian. A theme within a theme. A theme that was universal in that it joined other images of compassion as of Saint Martin and the parable of the Good Samaritan. De La Tour delivered a painting also that is very expressionist, very close to modern European man.

Other paintings:

Fifteenth century:

Sixteenth century:

Seventeenth century:

Eighteenth century:

Nineteenth century:

Twentieth century:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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