Four bloody arrows pierce Saint Sebastian’s seemingly lifeless body. One has stabbed through his leg, and a stream of blood seems to enter our space from its tip. The saint was a Roman centurion who converted to Christianity and, in punishment, the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered Sebastian’s fellow soldiers to tie him to a post and shoot him with arrows.
Honthorst must have seen many depictions of the saint’s martyrdom during the period that he worked in Rome, but he likely painted this work a few years after he returned to his native Utrecht in 1620. There were a number of outbreaks of the plague in Utrecht between 1624 and 1626, and Sebastian was revered as a ‘plague saint’, believed to offer protection against the deadly and highly contagious disease.
Saint Sebastian was a third-century Roman centurion who was martyred for converting to Christianity. Following the direct orders of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, Sebastian’s fellow soldiers tied him to a post and shot him with so many arrows that, according to the Golden Legend, his body looked like a porcupine. He miraculously survived, but was clubbed to death on the Emperor’s command.
The subject of Sebastian’s incredibly violent death was favoured by painters throughout Europe across centuries. Gerrit van Honthorst has shown the saint on the brink of death in this arresting close-up depiction. Four arrows pierce his partially naked body, which hangs lifelessly from what looks like an oak tree. The one that has stabbed through his leg points outward, and emphasises the painter’s signature in the lower left corner. Blood drips from this arrow’s tip in a steady stream, seemingly into our space.
Sebastian’s tormented body takes centre stage in Honthorst’s painting. The beautiful torso echoes classical sculpture, like the Belvedere Torso, which had been admired by artists in Rome since the fifteenth century. At the same time, the saint’s physical suffering was intended to inspire devotion: viewers were prompted to imagine his intense pain and the strength of his faith.
The cult of Saint Sebastian was especially strong in Rome, where he was venerated as the city’s third patron saint after Peter and Paul. His remains were buried in the catacombs, at a spot now occupied by the Basilica of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura, a church dedicated to him. In the years that Honthorst spent in Rome, a number of ecclesiastical building projects dedicated to Sebastian were being planned or completed.
This picture was likely finished around 1623, three years after Honthorst had left Rome for his native Utrecht. There were a number of outbreaks of the plague in the city between 1624 and 1626, following renewed hostilities between the Dutch Republic and Spain that lead to food shortages and severe malnutrition in large parts of the population. From the seventh century onward, Sebastian was the most important saint to invoke for protection against the deadly disease. The Golden Legend recounts how, in that century, the Italian city of Pavia had been scourged by the plague until an altar dedicated to Sebastian had been erected and relics of the saint brought in.
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