The picture is composed symmetrically to tell the story taken from the 'Golden Legend' of Saint Sebastian who was sentenced to death on being discovered a Christian. He was bound to a stake and shot with arrows. Here, the six archers have three basic poses, turned through space and seen from different angles. This helps produce the three-dimensional solidity of each figure and together they define the foreground space.
The Pollaiuolo brothers were sculptors, and may have made statuettes of the archers. The male nude is central to this picture and the figures - like the landscape - have been studied from life. A number of life drawings by the Pollaiuolo brothers have survived.
The landscape takes about a third of the background of 'The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian'. It is remarkable in its rendering of the glimmering river Arno and fading horizon. The tonal changes which occur over the receding landscape have been achieved by the use of oil paint.
The painting was placed in an oratory, built by the Pucci family in the 1450s, in the key Florentine church of the Servite order, SS. Annunziata. The Pucci family were Florentine bankers and were on close terms with the Medici family.