St. Sebastian is considered the protector against the plague, a nasty contagious illness that wiped out millions of lives in Europe during the Middle Ages.
In recent weeks, the outbreak of the Coronavirus disease has led millions of people around the world to worry about their health. For centuries, Catholics have been counting on an early Christian martyr to protect them from infectious disease.
St. Sebastian is considered the protector against the plague, a nasty contagious illness that wiped out millions of lives in Europe during the Middle Ages. It was during the 7th century in particular that believers started to address their prayers toward St. Sebastian during a violent outbreak of plague in Pavia, in northern Italy. Known for the suffering he endured during his death, St. Sebastian was killed around 288 during Roman emperor Diocletian‘s persecution of Christians. His death has inspired countless artists over the centuries.
Here is a list of the most poignant portraits of “the plague protector.”
1. Saint Sebastian of Vienna, Andrea Mantegna (1456–1459)
Early Renaissance master Andrea Mantegna completed three portraits of St. Sebastian, currently held in Vienna, Paris and Venice. Out of these three paintings, the “St. Sebastian of Vienna,” held at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, is the most significant as it was commissioned by the mayor of Mantua, Italy, to celebrate the end of a plague outbreak in the city. Here, Mantegna abandons the classical representation of St. Sebastian tied to a pole and pictures him leaning against a structure that looks like the gate to a city or a triumphal arch. St. Sebastian has an elegant posture and looks up to the heavens as he endures the pain of martyrdom.
2. St. Sebastian, Perugino, 1495
Currently housed at the Louvre museum in Paris, this oil on wood painting by 16th-century master Perugino offers a very harmonious depiction of the death of St. Sebastian. The saint’s body reflects traits of ideal beauty typical of Renaissance paintings that trace all the way back to ancient Greece. The light in this work is well-balanced and diffused, a practice that Perugino probably learned from Flemish masters he encountered in his travels to Northern Europe. In the bottom of the panel you can read an inscription, “SAGITTAE. TUAE.INFIXAE. SUNT. MICHI”, from Psalm 37.3, meaning “thine arrows are fixed in me.”
3. St. Sebastian, Antonello Da Messina, 1477-9
Once part of a triptych that has been lost, this work by Renaissance master Antonello da Messina displays traits typical of the Renaissance canon, such as the use of perspective and a geometrical disposition of subjects and landscape. Da Messina mixes this Renaissance style with elements of Flemish and Gothic painting, such as the monumental look of buildings, giving rise to one of the most interesting portraits of St. Sebastian. This painting is currently kept in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany.
4. St. Sebastian cured by women, Spagnoletto, 17th century
When it comes to conveying humanity, it is probably Spanish painter José de Ribera, known as Spagnoletto, who has left the most poignant portrait of St. Sebastian. In this oil on panel the artist represents the pain, but also the saintliness, of St. Sebastian as he has his wounds cured by a benevolent woman.