Saint Sebastian1636. Oil on canvas, 127 x 100 cm.
During Ribera’s lifetime, Naples was a bustling port for trade and one of the most densely populated cities in Europe. The many trading ships from the eastern Mediterranean arriving every day in the crowded port were a vector for the transmission of infectious diseases, and that, coupled with the city’s overcrowding, made Naples especially vulnerable to epidemics of the plague. In fact, the plague of 1656 was so devastating that it wiped out about half of the city’s inhabitants and left a void in its artist population, as many of the best painters of that generation were prematurely killed by it. Since the Middle Ages, Saint Sebastian had been considered to be an intercessor against the plague, which made him especially popular in Ribera’s adopted city as well as in other places that fell periodic victim to the dread disease. It was the plague, then, that encouraged the Church and private patrons to dedicate churches and chapels to the saint, creating a demand for images such as this one.
Ribera’s depiction of Saint Sebastian is steeped both in naturalism and in the idiom of classical antiquity, reflecting the aesthetic preoccupations characteristic of the Italian art of Ribera’s time. The composition, with the half-length body of the saint located in the foreground very near the spectator and the bottom edge of the painting, is reminiscent of similar images by Caravaggio.
This composition allows the painter to focus his attention on the torso, whose volume and corporality are wonderfully realized, and which is illuminated by intense lateral light. However, instead of choosing a rough, everyday model for the saint, as the stricter tenets of Naturalism à la Caravaggio would have dictated, Ribera envisioned his physique as reminiscent of that of a classical Antique statue. This change of aesthetic ideal is due to Ribera’s exposure to paintings of the Roman and Bolognese school, such as, for example, those of the painter Guido Reni. The proportions and anatomy of the saint are portrayed with academic precision, while the face, in spite of its idealization, is individual enough to present the saint as a real, believable person. This picture appears in a post-mortem inventory of Velázquez’s workshop in the Alcázar of Madrid, and it is clear that it must have been studied and admired by Velázquez.
The paintings and drawings of Ribera, who was also a prolific and expert draftsman, show his interest in depictions of violence and torture. This led some critical commentators of the past, especially non-Spaniards, to imagine him as a sadistic and cruel character, and even to extend this prejudiced opinion to Spanish art in general. However, on most occasions, such as in this example, the artist chose to portray a less dramatic moment, rather than capitalizing on the subject’s potential and depicting a more brutal scene. In the case of the Saint Sebastian in the Prado collection (which is very similar to another by Ribera owned now by the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville), only the arrows and the face turned upward introduce an element of violence into an otherwise serene and bloodless depiction of a male nude, in which lesser importance is given to the saint’s wounds than to the beauty of his anatomy. Here, the artist has preferred to emphasize the inner experience of Saint Sebastian as he quietly accepts his death and prepares to give up his soul and enter Heaven (Pérez d´Ors, P.: El Greco to Goya. Masterpieces from the Prado Museum, Museo de Arte de Ponce, 2012, pp. 115-116).