03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas Art & Humanities Christianity Religion

Pestilence & Prayers: St. Sebastian in Art (6)

April 24, 2020

See previous thesis blog post: Pestilence & Prayer: Vita of St. Sebastian

Works of art that include active shooters evoke the connection Sebastian has to the arrows of disease because the arches are shooting the figurative “arrows of disease” at him. The active shooters also reaffirm his less than sacred nickname: “The Holy Pincushion.” Giovanni del Biondo’s Triptych of St. Sebastian was commissioned for the newly built Cathedral of Florence, in which Sebastian was the titular saint for several altarpieces. St. Sebastian unquestionably lives up to the illusion of a pincushion or a hedgehog in this altarpiece. He is riddled with arrow shafts as the archers below continue to barrage him with arrows. The side panels of the altarpiece include scenes from the life of St. Sebastian, ending with his intercession in Florence during a plague outbreak in 1376.

Another influential image of St. Sebastian with active shooters is Benozzo Gozzoli’s Saint Sebastian protecting the populace of San Gimignano. In June of 1463, the plague had returned to the town and the government decreed that every church would offer prayers in honor of St. Sebastian. Diane Ahl describes the dire need for the fresco in her book about the artist, Benozzo Gozzoli: “The image was needed so urgently in the face of the plague that Benozzo had suspended his work in the choir to paint it.” This image shows an elaborate scene of St. Sebastian’s martyrdom: the archers are below him as usual but Heaven is full of activity, angels and other celestial bodies seem to dance in the sky above Sebastian holding a martyr’s crown.

The inscription below [the image] reads: “SANCTE SEBASTIANAE INTERCEDE PRO DEVOTO POPULO TUO,” translated as “Saint Sebastian intercede for your devoted people.” The altarpiece was not simply commemorative of the plague, it was also therapeutic. According to the town’s records, “on the very day of its dedication on July 1464, pestilence is recorded to have ceased through Sebastian’s intercession, and 38 inhabitants were freed from the plague.”

Another type of Sebastian’s plague imagery includes St. Sebastian as a solitary, inactive martyr, which echoes Christ on the cross. Louise Marshall calls this type the martyred Sebastian. The image of an inactive martyr is when the shooters are nonexistent, so the focus converges on Sebastian. Like Christ, Sebastian’s body is pierced yet he is still alive. Louise Marshall states in “Manipulating the Sacred” that

the image of Sebastian, martyred and yet alive, celebrates his resurrection as proof of his inexhaustible capacity to absorb in his own body the plague arrows destined for his worshipers. In these images […] he usually gazes heavenward with an expression of spiritual clarity and no narrative detail is included to intrude upon the intimate connection between redeemer and devotee.

In Benozzo Gozzoli’s Saints Nicholas of Tolentino, Roch, Sebastian, and Bernardino of Siena, with Kneeling Donors the plague saints are in a sacra conversazione or “holy conversation.” Unusually Sebastian is fully clothed in this image; is identified by his name inscribed in his halo and the iconic arrow he holds in his hand. Behind the saints, angels are flying in the sky, directing plague-arrows down to the city below. The donors, kneeling in the foreground, clearly commissioned this work to invoke the saints because the artwork included two powerful “first-tier” saints and accompanying “second-tier” saints and had the angels afflicting the town with disease in the background.

Next up! Images of the Virgin Mary as the Madonna della Misericordia 

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