100 Works of Art: (Visual) St Sebastian, Dosso Dossi

This is the last post in the (Visual) section of the 100 Works of Art … kerfuffle of blog posts. I’ll move onto music in a bit, which might make more sense. Anyway, these posts are to do with personal relation to works of art rather than Terribly Clever Analyses, so if you’re looking for something you can copy-and-paste for that art elective you didn’t want to take, try Wikipedia instead.

25. St Sebastian, Dosso Dossi (“first half of the 16th century”)

If you’ve been following these posts at all you may now be groaning “Not another bloody Sebastian”. Surely there can’t be anything left to be said about St Sebastian, patron saint of athletes, the Victorian “Uranian Love Movement“, and big damn perverts? I’ve gone on about his habitual acceptance of death with expressions ranging from the exasperated to the (borderline sexually) ecstatic, and his position in the artistic canon as an apparent recipient of the desire to draw naked men swooning as well as the desire to paint pictures of men who look like they’ve had a tryst with a hedgehog and come off the worse for it. However as a quick scroll through the archives of Fuck Yeah, St Sebastian will demonstrate, there are as many different variations on the martyrdom of the saint as there are artists willing to depict it, and this one immediately caught my eye when it showed up at FYSS.

St Sebastian, Dosso Dossi

One of the contemporary criticisms of another favourite of mine, Caravaggio, was that his art was very clearly posed in a studio and little attempt was made to hide this – or little enough for the tastes of those used to Mannerism. Dosso Dossi takes this further and paints what to me looks like a posed studio production of St Sebastian which acknowledges that it is in a studio. I am enormously fond of art that acknowledges its own artifice, and it seems a very post-modern attitude to be taking in the early 16th century! Possibly I am misinterpreting, but I like my interpretation. The idea that there is a scroll hung from the wall depicting the boring, unnecessary backdrop which will be sketched in later from the artist’s memory, the set-dressing, and the arrows that seem to draw no blood. It is not a perfect depiction of the artifice, for the branches and their fruit are real enough and the ropes that hold Sebastian in place are quite clearly doing their job, but the ambiguity and the possibility of being shown the strings behind the show are already compelling.

When I was younger – from about 3 to 19 – I was quite heavily into amateur dramatics, and considered the business of hanging around theatres to be possibly one of the best things in the world that didn’t involve animals or, later, alcohol. Part of the joy of that was the creation of entire worlds out of very meagre beginnings: all the venues I performed in were broke and often tiny, and I don’t believe I ever had many props to contend with, and very little in the way of scene changes (a lot of costume changes, particularly in the Mystery Plays, where I had to zoom out of a serpent’s costume and into a ridiculous golden contraption that was supposed to turn me into Salomé because we were somewhat short on cast); the similarity between the willing substitution of string and hanging apples with a landscape, and the invention of castles on a stage with cardboard crenellations, is such that my interpretation of this painting is one which strikes a happy chord.

In addition to all this, this is a rare Sebastian: the indignant Sebastian. He seems sincerely peeved at being peppered with arrow shafts and like he finds the whole thing an imposition on his important work of being naked in public, baring a very fine green velvet drape which has defied the laws of physics to cover his penis. The deep shadows and contrasting light in this work also bring up the sense of the visceral and physical Sebastian, at odds with depictions like those by Gustav Moreau, but here more theatrical and less weighty than the more well-known Gerrit van Honthorst, who takes up almost the entire frame of his painting. The inclusion of fruit, too, brings a sense of balance: it is the swell of new life and fertility directly behind the beginning of Sebastian’s holy death.

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