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St Sebastian: Arrow prayers for a time of pestilence

15 January 2021

St Sebastian’s Day is 20 January. Nicholas Cranfield looks at this plague saint in art


Benozzo Gozzoli’s fresco of St Sebastian for Sant’Agostino, in San Gimignano, Tuscany

Benozzo Gozzoli’s fresco of St Sebastian for Sant’Agostino, in San Gimignano, Tuscany

ALONGSIDE St Roch, the nobleman from Montpellier and dedicated health worker (c.1348-76/9) who knowingly put his life at risk ministering to the victims of the Black Death in Italy (Arts, 14 August 2020), St Sebastian is perhaps the best-known “plague saint”.

Renaissance and later artists often paired them off, Roch hitching up his short tunic to reveal the plague sore on his upper thigh, and Sebastian posing like an athletic model for Abercrombie & Fitch.

Sebastian’s cultus, both in the East and West, is often appealed to in times of illness. But in England the cult made less headway, and there are only two medieval churches dedicated in his honour. One is at Great Gonerby on the outskirts of Grantham, and the other, a joint dedication with St Fabian, whose feast day (20 January) he shares, at Woodbastwick, in Norfolk.

St Sebastian (c.256-88) is an early Christian martyr already celebrated in his birthplace, Milan, by the time of St Ambrose (d.397). He had achieved senior military preferment, having come to the personal attention of the Emperor; but Diocletian later ordered his death.

Early representations, such as the fifth-century fresco in the Roman catacomb of St Calixtus, the mid-sixth-century mosaic cycle in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, and the later sixth-century fresco in the church of St Peter ad Vincula, depict him as an older bearded senatorial figure; indeed, sebastos is Greek for venerable.

In his History of the Lombards, the eighth-century chronicler Paul the Deacon, from Pavia, recorded how the city of Rome was spared from a plague in 680 by Sebastian’s intercession. His cult as a plague saint burgeoned from the outset of the second millennium.

During one of the worst outbreaks of the Black Death, the city government of San Gimignano, in Tuscany, had ordered that every church would offer masses, prayers, and alms in honour of St Sebastian. For this, Benozzo Gozzoli (1421-97) received two commissions in 18 months to paint Sebastian. The earlier commission was painted in just 16 days for the Augustinian conventual house in San Gimignano. He is an imperious figure, kilted in blue with a gold mantle over his shoulders. Behind him, two angels carry the protecting veil that captures the falling arrows to spare the kneeling children and their supplant families. Above, the Virgin and Jesus kneel in front of the throne of heaven. The day after the fresco was completed, when mass was said at the altar below, the plague ceased.

This miraculous deliverance of the city led the city fathers to complete an earlier commission, and the fresco at the Collegiata was finally completed on 18 January 1466, shortly before the saint’s winter feast day. Gozzoli used the same model as the saint, but, instead of a venerable and almost immobile figure, he adopted the increasingly popular image of a virtually naked young warrior who stands porcupine-like, stripped to his briefs, and peppered with thirty arrows, while angels hold out a crown of martyrdom above him.

istockBenozzo Gozzoli’s fresco The Martyrdom of St Sebastian (detail) for the Collegiata, in Gimignano, Tuscany

The saint has become an Apollonian figure, scantily clad and often heroic in pose, that supplanted the image of an older hirsute warrior, deriving from a Christianisation of the myth of Apollo, who shot poisoned arrows at his enemies, but could also heal them.

Over the next two centuries, painters and sculptors paraded incomparably beautiful young men for the pious contemplation, or distraction, of the devout; Giovanni Bellini, in an altarpiece for the basilica of S. Zanipolo in 1464-8, established a model that artists such as Cima da Conegliano and Perugino eagerly followed.

Tastes change over time, and later Baroque patrons preferred stronger-built men to the ephebes of the Renaissance. In 1612, Cardinal Maffei Barberini had commissioned the Bolognese artist Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619) for an altarpiece of the dead Sebastian being thrown into the public sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, after he had been bludgeoned to death.

When it was completed, the cardinal had to admit that while the Carracci was a “good representation” of “force”, in which four soldiers tip the lifeless body from the shroud, it did not inspire “very much devotion”, and he suggested that he keep it in his own palace instead.

Five years later, he commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) for a statue of a seated St Sebastian for the family chapel in the basilica of Sant’Andrea delle Valle (famous as the setting for a hiding place in the first act of Tosca), which is built over the site of where the saint’s body had been recovered, and Cardinal Maffei honoured the association.

Bernini’s sculpture evokes the presence of a young man whose life hangs between almost certain death and unexpected recovery; his lips quiver and his eyelids droop. It is an idealised sculpture of intense beauty and pathos, the exceptional work of a teenager coming to terms with the works of Michelangelo and the classical sculptures that he saw in Rome. It is one of his first independent works, coming immediately after he carved Autumn with his father, a stand-out sculpture to be sold from the Hester Diamond Collection at Sotheby’s, New York (29 January 2021).

AlamySt Sebastian (second row, third) in Bellini’s Polyptych of St Vincent Ferrer, San Zanipolo, Venice

Bernini had been born in Naples and that city, the most populous in Europe, suffered in 1656 when for six months the city of some 400,000 was gripped with an uncontrollable plague. At its summer height, the daily death toll was between 10,000 and 15,000.

Three distinctive artists painted St Sebastian in Naples in one decade: Jusepe de Ribera in 1651, commissioned for the Carthusian priory of San Martino, which stands on a bluff above the Bay of Naples; Mattia Preti, painting a year after the worst of the plague; and the younger Luca Giordano (1634-1705), in 1660 copying Ribera.

All three paintings formed the core of last spring’s exhibition of Luca Giordano, which I saw before Covid-19 had been heard of outside medical and government circles. The exhibition was due to transfer to Naples from the Petit Palais.

These three great paintings were hung together, altarpieces only in the sense that they stand on the mean altar of the heart. The Ribera, one of the artist’s last works, shows him distancing himself from Caravaggesque naturalism to find a more Venetian sensitivity with a pose adopted by Giordano for a work later owned by Napoleon’s maternal uncle, Cardinal Fesch. Between them, Mattia Preti painted a more rugged saint for the Dominican church of St Sebastian in Naples, which was rejected, as “his face is more that of a valet than of captain of the guard that St Sebastian was.” More fool them not to seek his intercession.

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