The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian
Southern Germany, c. 1475
Carved, polychromed, & gilded wood
Height: 84 cm
This sculpture depicts Saint Sebastian, an officer of the Roman army, during the first stage of his martyrdom after his conversion to Christianity. Here, he is represented with golden curls, shoulders turned outward, a rounded belly, curved back, bruised knees, and his hands tied behind his back to a tree. Like the Ecce Homo, he wears a loincloth and bears a serene, though not vacant, expression. This is unlike other depictions of the Saint, where his face exhibits a great deal of suffering. His body has eight bleeding wounds, signifying the eight arrows that pierced his body after the Roman Emperor orders his archers to kill him.
The earliest representations of Saint Sebastian can be found in the seventh-century mosaics in the Church of Saint Peter in Vinculi in Rome. In the mosaics, he is shown as an older bearded man, wearing a toga and holding the martyr's crown. In later depictions, he would be represented as a solder, typically holding an arrow in his hand. His story has been preserved and handed down mainly by the Acta Martyum of the fifth century and the Passio sancti Sebastiani, which dates to the time of Pope Sixtus III. In the Depositio Martyum, Saint Sebastian's year of death was recorded as 354. However, it is the famous Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine from the late thirteenth century that played the greatest role in the dissemination of the story of the Saint. According to de Voragine, Sebastian was a Roman Centurion and a personal guard of the emperors Diocletian and Maximian. It was they who sentenced him to death by arrow, which he survived, only to be killed by being beaten to death later.
From the late fourteenth century onwards, the iconography of Saint Sebastian as it is known today was established. He is shown as a beardless youth with his hands tied to the trunk of a tree, his body full of wounds caused by the arrows of his executioners. In the Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voragine tells his story: "With these words Diocletian was much angry and wroth, and commanded him to be led to the field and there to be bound to a stake for to be shot at. And the archers shot at him till he was as full of arrows as an urchin is full of pricks, and thus left him there for dead."
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