“St. Sebastian”, a famous painting by Antonello da Messina, is housed in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, in Germany.
The painting was commissioned to Antonello by the School of San Rocco in 1478, the year of its foundation. It was a very difficult period for Venice, which was hit that summer by a devastating plague. The painting is a true tribute to the city.
Everybody knows the story of St Sebastian. He was a Roman soldier who was arrested and sentenced because of his Christian faith when he was just 27 years old. He was tied to a laurel tree in an area of the Palatine hill, he was pierced by arrows and he was left there to feed wild animals.
In the painting St. Sebastian martyrdom takes place in Venice and in the background we can see the canals, chimney pots and other details of the city. There are also some figures that animate the scene: some women looking out from the balustrade, a drunk soldier, a woman with her child in her arms, a woman with armed men and a couple of merchants in conversation. In the foreground there is the monumental figure of the Saint, seen from below with his body modeled by the light. The saint stands half naked in the center of a street, slightly bent to the right, wearing a loincloth and with five arrows stuck in five parts of his body: one a little above his right knee, one in his left thigh, one in his belly, one in his abdomen and one in the chest. The face of the saint expresses pain but also a calm sadness in the enduring the martyrdom.
There are many influences: the vertical figure of the saint, the perspective of the floor and the perfect disposition of the figurative elements show a marked influence by Piero della Francesca. Typical of Antonello da Messina is the sense of light, the smooth rendering of the body of St. Sebastian and the passion for the details of landscape.