Saint Sebastian1617 - 1619. Oil on canvas, 170 x 133 cm.
Sebastian was a Roman soldier who suffered martyrdom for his Christian faith during the reign of Diocletian and Maximian at the end of the third century. He was made a patron saint of the city of Rome and his cult became popular throughout Europe as he was invoked in times of plague. Sebastian is usually shown bound to a tree and shot with arrows in what turned out to be a first failed attempt at killing him. This is how Guido Reni shows him in this, one of his most famous compositions, of which several versions are known.
Reni had trained in the Accademia degli Incamminati, in his native Bologna, where young painters were taught to study the nude model and to copy the sculptures of Antiquity. Between about 1601 and 1614 he resided in Rome, and came briefly under the spell of Caravaggio, evidence of which is apparent in the dramatic nocturnal lighting of this painting. Reni spent the rest of his career in Bologna and became one of the most famous painters in Italy, making images characterised by a highly refined classicism and naturalistic elegance.
Reni`s Saint Sebastians are celebrated for their languid eroticism, with the version in Genoa (a different composition from this one) acquiring special renown in our time on account of a passage in Yukio Mishima’s autobiographical Confession of a Mask (1949), in which a glimpse of a reproduction of the painting in a book marks the beginning of the author`s voyage of sexual self-discovery. At some point in its history, probably during the eighteenth century, the Prado picture was considered too risqué and the saint`s loincloth, which suggestively slips down his midriff, was extended upwards by a censuring brush to hide more of his right thigh and lower abdomen. The decision to cover him up may have been taken by Queen Elisabeth Farnese, the second wife of Philip V, a very active collector of paintings and the first certain owner of the work. When the canvas was restored at the Prado in 1970 this passage of overpaint was left where it was. Before passing into the Spanish Royal Collection, the painting had apparently belonged to Juan Alfonso Enríquez de Cabrera, the ninth Admiral of Castile, a Spanish aristocrat who formed a spectacular collection of more than 900 paintings, including works by Titian, Raphael and Rubens, many of which were commissioned or acquired in Italy where he served the Crown as viceroy of Sicily (1641-44), then viceroy of Naples (1644-46) and finally as ambassador in Rome in 1646.
Reni painted the flesh tones with great skill over a reddish-brown ground; employed a dense criss-crossing of strokes of ivory white in the highlighted areas, the shoulders and chest for example; whereas in the half-shadows he painted in thin, transparent glazes over the ground.
Although there are no pentimenti visible under X-ray, the work gives the impression of having been painted boldly and confidently in one session. Two other versions of the painting, one in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, and another in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, also lay claim to autograph status. The presence of some underlying changes in the composition of the Dulwich canvas suggests it may be the primary version and that the Prado`s painting is a repetition by Reni. The artist in fact often repeated his compositions, sometimes with the assistance of studio collaborators. A dating in the later 1610s is generally accepted for the Prado painting, but the marked chiaroscuro makes an earlier date possible (Finaldi, G.: Italian Masterpieces. From Spain`s Royal Court, Museo del Prado, 2014, p. 102).