Saint Sebastian in the Princeton University Art Museum
Numerous works in the Princeton University Art Museum’s collections speak to Saint Sebastian’s powerful appeal to artists and to their diverse treatment of the saint. An Early Christian martyr, Saint Sebastian of Milan was a soldier who was persecuted for his faith under the Roman Emperor Diocletian. According to his legend, Sebastian was bound and shot with arrows. He survived this first attempt on his life and was nursed back to health by Irene of Rome. Although he was later beaten to death with a club, Sebastian is most often represented against a post or a tree, either pierced by arrows or holding the weapons as his attribute. His miraculous survival led to his role as a protector against the plague from the Middle Ages onward; since then, he has been featured with other saints in altarpieces and also shown alone in devotional works. Sebastian’s burial outside the walls of Rome, in a church known today as San Sebastiano fuori le mura, explains his frequent portrayal by Italian artists.
In the following selection of works, Sebastian is often represented as a partially nude figure, with his youthful body in a contorted pose that enabled artists to engage with anatomical detail. Federico Barocci’s preparatory drawing for the Crucifixion altarpiece in the Cathedral of Genoa, for example, reveals the artist’s fascination with modeling the outlines of Sebastian’s muscular body and capturing the effects of light on his collarbone and legs.
The story of Saint Sebastian’s shooting offered artists different narrative moments to focus on in their depictions. In his red-chalk drawing of the saint, Jusepe de Ribera creates a sense of anticipation, showing an executioner tying Sebastian to a tree moments before he will be shot. A drawing by an artist close to Luca Cambiaso features a scene following the attempted execution of Sebastian, with Irene releasing the saint from the tree where he was bound.
A more symbolic representation of Sebastian's shooting is found in the Master of the Greenville Tondo's painting that includes only one arrow, strategically positioned by the groin where sores from the Black Death were known to appear. Hans Baldung Grien’s woodcut includes a more shocking depiction, in which the saint’s body is displayed in a painfully angular pose, nearly broken by his suffering.
The scale of Saint Sebastian within a composition and his relationship with the viewer also play important roles in a work. In his etching, Jacques Callot adopts a distantviewpoint for the scene, setting it in a rich architectural context filled with a crelly indifferent crown of spectators who observe the archers' actions.
The treatment of Sebastian as a youthful, unclad, and often effeminate figure by numerous artists has contributed to interpretations of the saint as a symbol of homoeroticism, and in contemporary culture, a homosexual icon. In Princeton's collections, the Master of the Greenville Tondo's painting is the most clearly sensual and androgynous representation of the saint.
Veronica White, Curatorial Assistant for Academic Programs
Related Panel Discussion: A Piercing Agony: Two Baroque Interpretations of Saint Sebastian