This pincushion of a man is St Sebastian, an early Christian martyr. According to legend, Sebastian was a Roman soldier who after being discovered to be a Christian was condemned to be executed by archers. He survived only to be later beaten to death. Renaissance artists however much preferred to depict Sebastian pierced by multiple arrows as it was an ideal format to portray a standing male nude.
Mantegna, a leading figure of the Northern Italian Early Renaissance, painted this image for Podesta (chief magistrate) Jacopo Antonio Marcello (1398–1463), who was one of the artist’s friends from the humanist circle in his hometown of Padua.
Mantegna, like most humanists, was fascinated by the ruins of the ancient world and used models of Greek and Roman art to depict figures and space. He portrays Sebastian in an ancient world as Mantegna would have imagined it from his experience of Renaissance Padua: that is to say, in ruins. The martyr is bound to a crumbling Roman pillar decorated with a classical figure and flora. The tiled floor below is scattered with fragments of antique structures and sculpture and Sebastian himself almost resembles a stone statue, his body sculpted in three-dimensional form and coloured in the same hues as the architecture.
In the background three figures dressed in 15th-century fashion, perhaps the execution squad, walk along a road away from St. Sebastian. Further in the distance are a classical looking city and mountains, perhaps Rome and the Palatine hills, the supposed place of Sebastian’s martyrdom. Mantegna’s signature is in Greek next to Sebastian’s pierced body, more evidence of his extensive knowledge of the ancient world.
While Mantegna used St. Sebastian as a way to depict the world of classical antiquity, in the 15th-century the saint was also considered as a protector against the plague, which tormented much of Europe. The Horseman of the Apocalypse depicted in the sky is probably a plague reference.
Soon after completing this work, Mantegna was appointed court artist to the Dukes of Mantua who saw themselves as modern Caesars and made much of Mantua’s classical heritage as the birthplace of the poet Virgil. Mantegna’s precise, sculptural painting style, so reflective of classical art and quite different from the dreamy idealism of much contemporary court painting, was no doubt why he was hired.
Mantegna enjoyed great success as an artist and his fame never declined. He influenced numerous painters from his brother-in-law Giovanni Bellini to northern artists like Albrecht Dürer, who emulated Mantegna’s interpretation of ancient art.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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1460 Dieric Bouts: Mater Dolorosa, Chicago, Art Institute
c1460 Piero della Francesca: Madonna del Parto, Monterchi, Museo della Madonna del Parto