100 Works of Art: (Visual) Saint Sebastian on the Basilica di San Sebastiano fuori le mura, Giuseppe Giorgetti

For a précis of the nature of this series, please see the first post.

17. Saint Sebastian on the Basilica di San Sebastiano fuori le mura, Giuseppe Giorgetti (c. 1671/72)

This is by no means the first Saint Sebastian in this series, and it probably won’t be the last. As self-appointed curator at Fuck Yeah, St Sebastian, I’ve rather irretrievably lobbed my hat in the “liking St Sebastian in art” ring. I’m also very fond of sculptures of idealised versions of the human form, whether in bronze or marble or sandstone: “idealised” covers most often gods and goddesses from a variety of cultures, and the physical embodiment of conceptual goals, like “Virtue” and “Chastity”, and the odd mythological beast, but it’s really about the form for me: the more graceful and lifelike the statue (whether it has an elephant’s head or is just some impossibly beautiful washerwoman), the more I like it.

Or in this instance, the more serene and deathlike the statue, the more I like it.

Saint Sebastian (c. 1671/72) in the Basilica di San Sebastiano fuori le mura on the via Appia, Rome, possibly after a design by Ciro Ferri.

On first inspection this is essentially another depiction of Sebastian in a swoon, his head tipped back in that irresistible, Guido Reni pose of “goodness I’m enjoying my martyrdom”. Tragically Sebastian, who entirely probably didn’t exist, was actually said to have recovered from his arrowing and gone stomping back into the Temple of Jupiter in order to give Diocletian what for about religion, and was then martyred by the less visually appealing method of being beaten up, possibly flayed, dismembered, and lobbed in the Cloaca Maxima – a fate reserved for anyone considered to be trash whose presence befouled the holy city of Rome; evidently Sebastian enjoyed his martyrdom so much he thought he’d have a second one.

With the golden arrows and the sensuality of the pose there’s an immediate parallel to be drawn with a preceding and much more famous statue, Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa. In Giorgetti’s statue there are echoes of the idea of physical, visceral pleasure being used as a stand-in for the unknowable pleasures of Heaven that were made so explicit in the older work by Bernini. The substitution of earthly pleasures for Heavenly ones being a common theme in Renaissance art, it’s reasonable to assume that Sebastian really is enjoying his martyrdom: if not for the sensation of his suffering then for the reward he will receive in Heaven for his unwavering faith and devotion.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an atheist and as such the religious significance of works like this is purely contextual for me: it tells me why the piece was made and what the artist was hoping to represent, and it tells me the social value the art has to others, but it doesn’t inspire necessarily the same sense of Christian devotion on the grounds that I’m not a Christian. But as with the Dirk Bouts painting, I find there is something to be taken away from the experience nevertheless: the Renaissance approach of depicting religious ecstasy as earthly pleasure translates very well, and as Sebastian’s pose here is quite natural to someone who isn’t potentially dying of arrows what I’m left with is a a voluptuous young man reclining elegantly in marble, peppered with a come of shafts of gold which rather pleasantly offset the curves and calm of the figure. Essentially it serves as a memento mori in juxtaposition: the beautiful, vital youth swooning on his prop, who could be any of his age on a summer’s day dozing in the sun, were it not for the angular, gleaming arrows which pierce him and very nicely remind the viewer that death comes to everyone, even the beautiful.


For more images of St Sebastian by a wide variety of artists, as well as articles and videos and music inspired by the saint, please do visit Fuck Yeah, St Sebastian, and for other posts on works of art please check out the 100 works of art tag on this blog.

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