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Saint Sebastian
El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos)
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El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos)

Candia, Crete (Greece), 1541 - Toledo (Spain), 1614

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) See author's file

Saint Sebastian

1610 - 1614. Oil on canvas.
Room 009B

According to ancient traditions collected by Jacobus de Voragine in his Legenda Aurea (1264), Saint Sebastian was a third-century Roman soldier who served in the Praetorian Guard, one of the most prestigious units of the imperial army, at the time when the emperor Diocletian was actively persecuting Christians. Sebastian’s beliefs urged him to encourage others to die rather than renounce their faith, and that was precisely what Sebastian himself did when he was pressed to apostatize. Because of the way in which he was tortured (he was bound naked to a tree and shot with arrows), depictions of Sebastian afforded artists the opportunity to experiment with the aesthetic possibilities of the male nude as a subject. The Prado’s Saint Sebastian is an excellent example of El Greco’s understanding of the nude. Rather than imitating nature, he reworks it to produce an intellectual, self-consciously artificial version of it; his purpose is to create a scene that belongs in the world of the artist’s imagination and he is not primarily concerned with replicating viewers’ everyday experience of seeing. El Greco achieved this, in the first place, by means of his characteristic elongation of the human form. Limbs and muscles are connected to each other with little regard for the normal proportions of the body; the artist seeks instead to make the most of the body’s expressive potential. The saint’s left foot is on tiptoes, barely touching the ground, and the figure with its pulsating outline seems to surge upward like a flame. This is El Greco’s way of representing his understanding of the martyr’s inward experience, that dramatic moment when his soul yearns to leave the body and ascend. This heavenward movement culminates in the head, atop an impossibly long neck as if it, too, were stretching upward. The saint’s gaze is turned up and his calm expression suggests an attitude of quiet acceptance, in accordance with Catholic teachings on the ideal way to meet death. The lighting of the scene enhances this silent drama: the background, with a view of Toledo on the right, is an eerie stormy darkness, whereas the saint’s body is bathed in a supernatural glow. A sort of halo is formed by the clouds behind Sebastian, creating an interesting ambiguity, as it is not clear whether the clouds belong in the natural realm or the supernatural.

The transitions between light and shade are painted with the very subtle brushstrokes characteristic of El Greco’s last years.

It is not clear why the painter added a view of Toledo to the background of this religious scene, since Saint Sebastian was never said to have set foot in Spain; such apparently incongruous views of Toledo are found in other paintings, such as his Laocoön (National Gallery of Art, Washington, dc). Exactly the same view appears in Saint Joseph and the Child Jesus (Toledo cathedral, chapel of St. Joseph) and Saint Martin and the Beggar (National Gallery of Art, Washington, dc). While no definitive explanation has been found, several hypotheses may help us understand the logic behind the choice of background in this particular case. It is possible that if the patron who commissioned the painting was from Toledo, he may have requested the inclusion of the familiar cityscape in the painting as a sign of identity, or perhaps symbolically to put his city under Saint Sebastian’s protection. However that may be, by placing the martyrdom scene in a location that was recognizable to viewers, El Greco may have meant to emphasize the relevance of Saint Sebastian’s example and mediation for his contemporaries in earlyseventeenth-century Spain.

The unusual appearance of this painting is due to the fact that at some point the canvas was cut into two different pieces, the upper part containing the body of St. Sebastian and the lower one with his legs and a view of Toledo in the background. There is no evidence as to when or why this was done, but fortunately, the lower fragment appeared on the market a few years after the upper portion was donated to the Prado, making it possible to reunite the two pieces (Pérez d´Ors, P.: El Greco to Goya. Masterpieces from the Prado Museum, Museo de Arte de Ponce, 2012, pp. 114-115).


Technical data

Inventory number
El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos)
Saint Sebastian
1610 - 1614
Height: 201.5 cm; Width: 111.5 cm
The top fragment from the collection of II Marquis of Vega Inclán, Benigno de la Vega Inclán y Flaquer; collection of the Marquis of Casa Torres, 1902; bequest of Blanca de Aragón, Countess of Mora, Marchioness of Casa-Riera, for the Prado Museum, 1960. The lower fragment from the collection of Millán Delgado, 1962; bought by Adolfo de Arenaza, 1972; bought by José Osinalde Peñagaricano; acquired by the Museo del Prado in 1987.

Bibliography +

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Legendre, M. Hartmann, A, Domenico Theotocopouli dit el Greco, Hyperion, Paris, 1937, pp. 469.

Camón Aznar, José, Dominico Greco, II, Espasa-Calpe, Madrid, 1950, pp. 910 n.537.

Camón Aznar, José1898-1979, Dominico Greco, Espasa-Calpe, Madrid, 1950, pp. 712.

Soehner, Halldor, Greco in Spainien. Teil I. Grecos Stilentwicklung in Spanien, Münchner jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, VIII, 1957, pp. 123-194 [194].

Soehner, Halldor, Greco in Spainien. Teil II. Atelier und Nachfolge Greco's; Teil III katalog der Gëmalde Grecos, seines ateliers und seiner Nachfolge in Spanischem besitz, Münchner jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, IX-X, 1958-1959, pp. 147-242 [n.135].

Sánchez Cantón, Francisco Javier, Adquisiciones del Museo del Prado (1956-1962), Archivo Español de Arte, XXXV, 1962, pp. 306.

Sánchez Cantón, Francisco Javier, El Museo del Prado. Reformas y adquisiciones (1960-1962), Goya, 50-51, 1962, pp. 74.

Eeckhout, P., El Greco 1541-1614. Exposition, Musee des BeauxArts, Gante, 1966, pp. nº17.

Wethey, Harold, El Greco y su escuela, II, Guadarrama, Madrid, 1967, pp. 159 n.281.

Wethey, Harold, El Greco y su escuela, II, Guadarrama, Madrid, 1967, pp. nº281.

Angulo Iñiguez, Diego, Exposición de las principales adquisiciones del Museo del Prado, Archivo Español de Arte, 41, 1968, pp. 312.

Pérez Sánchez, Alfonso Emilio, Diez años de Adquisiciones para el Museo del Prado, Goya, 90, 1969, pp. 301.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Principales adquisiciones de los últimos diez años: 1958-1968, Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1969.

Salas, Xavier de, La obra pictórica completa de el Greco, Noguer, Barcelona Madrid, 1970, pp. n.168.

Salas, Xavier de, La obra pictórica completa de el Greco, Noguer, Barcelona.Madrid, 1970, pp. nº168.

Gudiol, José, El Greco 1541-1614: Doménikos Theotokópoulos, Polígrafa, Barcelona, 1971, pp. 278,283 n.241.

Gudiol, José, El Greco 1541-1614: Doménikos Theotokópoulos, Polígrafa, Barcelona, 1971, pp. nº 241.

Guinard, Paul, Tout L'Oeuvre Peint de Greco, Flammarion, Paris, 1971, pp. nº168.

Salas, Xavier de, Museo del Prado. Catálogo de las pinturas, Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1972, pp. 307-308.

Ascione, Benjamino, San Sebastiano Nella Storia e Nell'Arte, Il Vesuvio, Napoles, 1973, pp. lám. 61.

Pietro, L.Di, El Greco, Editorial Marin, Barcelona, 1979, pp. 74.

Cossío, Manuel B., El Greco, Espasa-Calpe, Madrid, 1981, pp. nº315.

Pita Andrade, José Manuel, El Greco, Arnoldo Mondadori, Milán, 1981, pp. 155-160 n.285.

Cañedo-Arguelles, Cristina, Arte y teoría: la contrarreforma y España, Universidad, Arte-Musicología Servicio de Publica, Oviedo, 1982, pp. lám. 56.

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Other inventories +

Catálogo Museo del Prado, 1972. Núm. 3002.

Catálogo Museo del Prado, 1985. Núm. 3002.

Inv. Nuevas Adquisiciones (iniciado en 1856). Núm. 1846.
1846 / Autor, D.T. El Greco, / Asunto, San Sebastián / Lienzo, 115 x 85 cms. / Nº del Catalogo, 3.002- [Nota en margen izquierdo] Donativo de la condesa / de Mora [dña. Blanca de Aragón], en memoria de su / padre, el Marqués de Casa Torres, en 26 de abril de 1.960

Inv. Nuevas Adquisiciones (iniciado en 1856). Núm. 2166.
2166 / Autor: Greco, Domenicos Theotocopuli, el / Título: piernas de san Sebastián / Tipo de obra: pintura / Medidas: 0,88 x 1,125 / Técnica/soporte: óleo sobre lienzo / Nº de catálogo: 7186 / Observaciones: Adquirido por el Estado a D. José Osinalde Peñagaricano en 7.000.000 pts. Mayo 1987. / O.M. de 20-V-1987.

Exhibitions +

06.06.2020 - 25.07.2021

Balenciaga y la pintura española
18.06.2019 - 22.09.2019

El Greco and Modern Painting
24.06.2014 - 05.10.2014

From El Greco to Goya: Masterpieces from the Museo del Prado
Ponce, Puerto Rico
25.03.2012 - 16.07.2012

El Greco 1900. Bruselas
03.02.2010 - 09.05.2010

El Greco Toledo 1900 (Méjico)
México D.F.
02.09.2009 - 02.11.2009

View and Plan of Toledo
02.06.2009 - 27.02.2011

El Greco Toledo 1900
04.09.2008 - 11.01.2009

El Greco in the Prado
04.12.2007 - 17.02.2008

El taller de El Greco
15.10.2007 - 06.01.2008

Pintura y poesía: del amor y la guerra en el Renacimiento
01.11.2002 - 31.01.2003

Location +

Room 009B (On Display)

Update date: 28-05-2022 | Registry created on 28-04-2015

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