Saint Sebastian1656. Oil on canvas, 171 x 113 cm.
Today, Juan Carreño, who was appointed Chamber Painter to the King in 1671, is best remembered for his portraits from the court of Charles II, but, in fact, most of his paintings are devotional. Such works abounded at churches, convents, and private homes in Madrid and its surroundings, and they contributed to the artist´s growing renown. Chief among them is the artist´s Saint Sebastian. According to contemporaneous sources, the painting adorned a chapel at the convent of the Bernardine nuns (known as Las Vallecas) in Madrid, remaining there until the ecclesiastical disentailment of 1835. In this work, Carreño depicts Sebastian bound to a tree in an expansive landscape. The arrow in his right thigh indicates that this is the beginning of Sebastian´s martyrdom, as it appears to be his only wound. A helmet, breastplate, and other items of military garb lying at his feet allude to his profession. He twists his body and looks to the heavens, a customary formula for the representation of martyrdom, as it conveyed voluntary acceptance of the sacrifice. The painting´s subject can be directly related to the name of the chapel´s owner, Don Sebastián de Agramón, who commissioned this work. The sharp angle of the saint´s right arm emphasizes his contorted posture, distinguishing this composition from more frequent approaches to the portrayal of Saint Sebastian in Spanish painting from the seventeenth century. At the same time, it resembles a painting on the same subject that Pedro de Orrente made for Valencia Cathedral in 1625, which suggests that both artists may have drawn on the same source. Indeed, Carreño’s technical handling of form reflects the strong influence of sixteenth-century Venetian painting at that moment in his career, especially the rich impastos that make color and texture important means of expression. The saint´s body is softly modeled with a combination of pinks and ivories that are effectively projected over the blue and gray sky in the background. To enhance the scene´s emotive potential, Carreño exposed and twisted the body, emphasizing two areas of great expressive value: the left hand at the center of the composition and the martyr´s imploring face, which is rendered with extraordinary care and descriptive precision. Sebastian was a very popular saint in medieval Spain, as he was thought to provide protection against the plague. As such, he was abundantly represented in both private collections and places of public worship. The scene of his martyrdom -preferred by artists and patrons alike- called for a representation of his nudity. In fact, along with images of the Crucifixion, the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian is one of the events that offered Spanish painters the greatest opportunity to display their skill at depicting nudes. The nude constituted the art form par excellence in Europe of the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. With the nude body, a painter could manifest his mastery of anatomy and proportions, as well as the portrayal of emotions. As noted above, the present work was intended for public exhibition in a centrally located convent in Madrid, and Carreño, who was just over forty years old at the time, wanted to show off his artistic abilities. The painting was to demonstrate that he was not just a delicate colorist who had learned from Venetian and Flemish works in Madrid, but also a prolific and confident draftsman. To do so, he chose a composition that would exhibit as much of Saint Sebastian´s body as possible, twisting and thrusting it into the scene´s foreground. Aware of his success, the artist placed his signature in one of the most exposed locations of all -in the lower-left foreground, easily accessible to the viewer (Text drawn from Portús, J.: Splendor, Myth, and Vision. Nudes from the Prado, 2016, pp. 182-185).