Beauty in Death: Saint Sebastian

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Beauty in Death

An Investigation of the Divine Demise 
Curated by Tommy Dunn

El Greco, Saint Sebastian, 1614

Paintings of Saint Sebastian tied to a pole are some of the most common martyrdom images in art. However, Saint Sebastian did not actually die tied to that stake. The archers whom Diocletian had commanded to kill him in the purges shot him full of arrows and left him for dead, but he miraculously survived. He was saved by a Christian widow in Rome. Brought to her house, he performed a miracle when he restored the sight of a blind girl with the power of Christ. Diocletian lived near to where he hid, but he was safe within the house. However, after a while he could not contain himself. Sebastian loudly taunted Emperor Diocletian as he walked by the safe house. Diocletian found himself face to face with someone he had ordered killed. Enraged, he ordered his soldiers to take Sebastian and beat him to death in an alley, where Sebastian was martyred for the second time.

This depiction of Sebastian is easily identifiable as an El Greco. Sebastian’s elongated body leads to an unusually small head. El Greco does a great job of creating movement in a scene where it really does not exist. Sebastian himself seems to twist skywards; his face strains upwards. Behind him, the classic El Greco clouds swirl around in a vortex centered on Sebastian’s emaciated torso.

El Greco painted a much more famous version of this scene earlier in his career, but I like this one better. I like his later style much more than his more by-the-book earlier works. In particular, I like the colors here and the small town in the background. I think this one also does a much better job of showing Sebastian’s separation from his torture. His eyes point skyward, and while he seems near swooning, he does not seem like he feels pain. He makes a connection with the divine. While he may not die here, this scene certainly belongs as a martyrdom.

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