St. Sebastian at the Column vs. St. Sebastian at the Tree

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Albrecht Durer, St. Sebatian at the Column, 1499
Albrecht Durer, St. Sebastian at the Tree, 1501
By ELLIE SCHNEIDER

St. Sebastian was an early Christian  saint and martyr. During Diocletian's rule over Rome. People who practiced Christianity, like St. Sebastian, were heavily persecuted. Diocletian ordered St. Sebastian's death, so he was brought to a field and shot with arrows, only they did not kill him. Legend says that he was rescued and healed by Irene of Rome. Then, he supposedly went to Rome and confronted Diocletian, fighting for the freedom of speech and religion. Diocletian then ordered St. Sebastian to be killed for the second time, and this time it worked.

St. Sebastian is a common figure depicted in Renaissance art. Painters such as Botticelli, Perugino, Mantegna, and el Greco have captured the same scene and Dürer does above. Most often, St. Sebastian is painted in his youth. Dürer painted this scene twice, just three years apart, but he chose to paint St. Sebastian first in his youth and then as an older man.

What is the point of painting the same subject twice? Why did he chose to capture St. Sebastian at two different ages? These were the questions I asked myself when I found both of these prints. At the column, St. Sebastian is younger, and this shows because he appears more awake, petit, and calm. His hair and face also match that of a younger man. St. Sebastian at the Tree shows an older Sebastian with mature facial hair and a more built body. He also appears closer to death than the younger depiction, suggesting his youth in the legend is what saved him. Also, in the first image St. Sebastian stands upright and appears relaxed, but in the second image, Sebastian is leaning into the tree for support and his muscles appear tense. Additionally, I think that the maturing of St. Sebastian between these two prints also signifies the maturing of Dürer as a person and as an artist.

In Dürer's first image, St. Sebastian is at the column whereas at the second one he is at the tree. This is also an interesting change that Dürer made in his second print. Most other artists also place St. Sebastian at the tree, so it might be inspired by the works he saw when he visited Italy just before these etchings were made.

My favorite parts of these etchings are the tags that Dürer uses to sign his works. If you look to the left of the column, in the lower left corner and then if you search at the bottom right of the tree, there are small squares with a D for Dürer inside an A for Albrecht.

Dürer takes a subject that has been depicted in different mediums throughout time and uses his unparalleled etching abilities to create two of his own versions of St. Sebastian.

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