It has to just be downright disappointing to be the patron saint of archery, arrows, soldiers and plagues. Not much fun at all, we’d venture. In fact, a rather painful endeavour and one that has no real benefits. We are, of course, talking about Saint Sebastian, who according to records or myth – whatever your view – died circa 268 as the Christian saint and martyr who opposed the Roman emperor Diocletian and his vicious persecution of Christians. Sebastian is often depicted in art and literature tied to a tree, post or some sort of vertical implement, riddled with arrows, his face contorted with pain. It is therefore fitting, as we alluded to in our previous post, to examine why Raphael chose to portray him in such angelic and graceful an appearance.
The Raphael painting is only one of a very few depictions of Saint Sebastian that show the Christian martyr at peace. Raphael, the known purveyor of all things graceful, transforms a tale of woe into the divine. For those not in the know, art historians have speculated that Sebastian was probably a soldier of French origin, likely the province of Narbonne, who then travelled to Milan and was then recruited into the Roman army. Just after he joined he ended up converting to Christianity, which was then viewed as a dangerous and destabilising threat to the Emperor. Unfazed, Sebastian tried to convert others to the cause and as punishment he was tied to a stake and shot with arrows. Apparently he still lived (as Christian saint stories go), but the soldiers finished him off by beating him to death with clubs.
So it is possible that Raphael simply wanted the man to be remembered before the moment of his death. As such, the Raphael painting portrays the young man in an exquisitely embroidered robes with a hefty gold chain around his neck – a sign of nobility or at least significant wealth. Sebastian also holds a single arrow, almost toying with it, as if tempting fate and destiny to complete his forlorn future. As many observers note, the portrait significantly deviated from standard portrayals of Saints, who were often featured in full length and commonly only with a loincloth – an indication of the poverty and purity of their life and ultimate sacrifice.
So what was Raphael trying to say through the painting? Was the pointing out that anyone one of us could be like the Saint? Was he making an ironic statement that a rich, wealthy man in fact could never be a saint, much like Jesus’ statement that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, than a camel through the eye of the needle? Whatever his intentions, one has to note the remarkable skill found in all Raphael paintings, and Saint Sebastian, or San Sebastiano in the original Italian, is no exception. Noted scholar Giovanni Valagussa points out that his use of light and his magnificently graceful brushwork in the painting involuntarily draws the eye, while the melodious formal composition and distinguishing poses create a sense of private commitment to a man whose origins are not immediately obvious. The result? A truly Renaissance era worthy piece of art, not quite of this world.