Two Sebastians of the European Baroque

Two exceptional paintings on loan to the Princeton University Art Museum afford a special opportunity to examine the importance of this subject to artists of the Baroque period: Guercino’s Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (ca. 1632), from the Federico Castelluccio Collection, U.S.A., and Simon Vouet’s Saint Sebastian (ca. 1620–27), from the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston. Both works represent Saint Sebastian, an officer in the Roman imperial guard when the Emperor Diocletian (reigned a.d. 284–305) discovered he was a Christian and ordered his execution. He was bound and shot with arrows but nursed back to health by Saint Irene; later he was clubbed to death at the behest of the Emperor, after which his body was thrown into a sewer, becoming a symbol of Roman persecution of Christianity. Because he miraculously survived the first attempt to kill him, Sebastian was later embraced as a protector against the plague.

From as early as the sixth century, Sebastian was represented in art and literature as a symbol of Christian martyrdom. By about 1000, he was depicted as being shot through with arrows, creating the common misperception that this was how he died. During the medieval and Renaissance periods, he was one of the most commonly represented of all saints, both in altarpieces with other figures and in isolation in devotional works. Since the fifteenth century, he afforded artists the opportunity to represent a nearly naked male figure, often in a contorted pose, when the Church might otherwise have deemed such images indecent.

Sebastian has continued to provide inspiration for artists of our own time, including the filmmaker Derek Jarman, who represented him as a gay icon, and artist Damien Hirst, who referenced him in a work depicting a cow in formaldehyde, pierced by arrows.

In this two-painting installation, works by two of the Baroque’s most important artists are brought together to offer insights into the artists’ varying choices for representing the same subject, despite similarities in format: the French painter Simon Vouet, offering us a classicizing, restrained, yet still voluptuous vision of the saint, and the Italian artist Guercino, known for melding rich naturalism with classical equilibrium. Also on view in the galleries are an informal landscape sketch and a study for the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew by Guercino—part of an exceptional collection of his drawings at Princeton.    

Click here for numerous other works depicting Saint Sebastian in the Museum’s collections

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