For an explanation of this series & approach, see the first post.
3. St Sebastian with St Roch & Demitrius, Ortolano (Giovanni Battista Benvenuti) c. 1520
This painting is on display in the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, and as with Black Virtue I came across it by accident. The National being intimidatingly vast, it’s my habit these days to visit old favourites and then dive into other sections at random in the hopes of ever actually taking the whole thing in without needing to have a note left in my will about my imminent Death By Gallery; some days I just take the opportunity of being in the vicinity of the gallery to come and contemplate this one picture.
As readers of this blog or even casual casters-around this blog will notice, I am very fond of the iconography of central figure here. I curate the Fuck Yeah, St Sebastian Tumblr blog, and I have a honking great tattoo of St Sebastian (drawn by Rotem Shuval and tattooed by Biko Issah) on my whole left thigh. There are, however, many images of St Sebastian in the National Gallery alone: there are hedgehog pincushion St Sebastians among the medieval icons, there is one particularly fine one in which the saint is almost invisible under the multitude of arrow shafts, in opposition to later paintings by the likes of Reni and Ribera where the swooning and semi-erotic Sebastian is piercing by a single shaft or a brace of arrows.
The reason this individual representation of St Sebastian caught my attention was in part the clear and clean, faintly reminiscent of Botticelli style. Also the two massive splotches of very vivid colour; earlier St Sebastians tend to have faded somewhat or gone a bit over the top with the gold leaf, and later ones have become muddy and vague in the style of the day. This particular painting is comic book, children’s illustrated bible-bright.
My attention got thus, it remained in part because of the unusual pose: St Sebastian’s position is anything but natural, even for religious icons. The justification of his stance with the utterly illogical tying of his arms is kind of brilliant. The painting is itself pretty well executed, there are none of the anatomical curiosities that leave me giggling inn various other parts of the gallery (you have never actually seen a naked woman, Mr Painter), and while facially he’s not the prettiest of St Sebastians – a contest I am clearly going to have to clear up some day – this fellow is anatomically quite lovely.
There is also the question of symbolism. Not in the saints themselves, although I appreciate there’s plenty going on there and also the way the scarlet scabbard on the ground draws the eye directly up to Sebastian’s wingwong (technical academic term). It’s the background. There’s a very specific feature which crops up over and over and which is causing me consternation as I can’t pinpoint what it might represent:
Repeatedly both in the near background and in the further distance it’s possible to make out pairs of trees, one a stump as of a felled adult tree, and the other a fresh green sapling “new-sprung” or at the very least in the early years of its life. Even once this would be a noteworthy pairing, but as it crops up more than ten times in the painting I’m pretty certain it has a meaning.
What that meaning is so far eludes me. The best offer so far as been that it’s either representative of the crowning of a new king or swearing-in of a new Pope (I don’t know enough about early 16th Century Italian history to tender my own opinion on that), or that it’s “something to do with religion”, a note which leaves me wondering if surrounding myself with my fellow-atheists is always entirely helpful.
There is one other thing I rather like about this painting, which is the observable weather condition. The red low sun glowering out from clouds pregnant and slate-grey with unshed rain is a situation with which I am well-familiar, and for some reason the identifiability of it works like a link to the past in my mind.