St Sebastian – why are there so many paintings?

Isn’t Wikipedia great? For years I’ve been under a misapprehension. One – St Sebastian was a martyr. Two – He is invariably shown tied to a tree with arrows sticking out of him. Ergo – He was killed by arrows. However, Wikipedia has shown me the error of my ways.

“He is commonly depicted in art and literature tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows. This is the most common artistic depiction of Sebastian; however, he was rescued and healed by Irene of Rome before criticising the emperor and being clubbed to death.”

St Sebastian by Titian (c 1570) in the Hermitage Museum

When we go to a large art gallery, my wife and I play the game Who Can Spot St Sebastian First? True, the game usually only lasts a few minutes before we spot the first. But why are there so many paintings of St Sebastian? One website gives information of about 6000 depictions of the saint.

Charles Darwent (in an article in the Independent to coincide with a major exhibition of six paintings of St Sebastian by Guido Remi at Dulwich Art Gallery in 2008) said: “There are more pictures of the arrow-filled Sebastian than there are of any other martyr I can think of, painted by everyone from Aleotti to Zick by way of Rubens, Botticelli, Titian and John Singer Sargent. The National Gallery alone has a dozen, including ones by Crivelli, Gerrit Honthorst and Luca Signorelli.”

So why are there so many paintings of him? Again Wikipedia has some help: “As protector of potential plague victims and soldiers, Sebastian naturally occupied a very important place in the popular medieval mind, and hence was among the most frequently depicted of all saints by Late Gothic and Renaissance artists, in the period after the Black Death.The opportunity to show a semi-nude male, often in a contorted pose, also made Sebastian a favourite subject”.

Darwent discusses reasons why St Sebastian, who actually “was a red-blooded captain in the Praetorian Guard, a centurion of middling years” became the pretty youth frequently shown.

He also makes the comment: “Thanks to the arrows, he’s the one martyr in art everyone can spot. (Iconography is so unfair. Who now recognises St Stephen’s stones or St Lawrence’s griddle?)” This is where I still have a problem. Surely there are other opportunities “to show a semi-nude male, often in a contorted pose” as other martyrs met their ends. So where are the paintings of all these other martyrs? Unfortunately, even Wikipedia can’t answer this one for me.


About notes to the milkman

I'm a printmaker based in the North West of England, living in Bolton and printing at Hot Bed Press in Salford. Please visit my website
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