Saint Sebastian by Sodoma [Giovanni Antonio Bazzi]

Sodoma (Giovanni Antonio Bazzi)

Saint Sebastian, 1525, Oil on canvas, 204 x 145 cm, Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Scala / Art Resource, NY

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They Will Persecute You

Commentary by
Read by Chloë Reddaway

The world’s hatred and persecution of Christians predicted by Jesus in this passage has taken many forms throughout the Church’s history. This includes martyrdom, which has been a regular theme in the history of visual art.

Among the Church’s best-known and most beloved martyrs is St Sebastian. According to tradition, Sebastian (d. c.288 CE) was killed during ‘the Great Persecution’ of Christians under Emperor Diocletian (244–311 CE/ r. 284–305 CE). Diocletian required sacrifices to the Roman gods, ordered the burning of churches and Scripture, and had Christian leaders imprisoned and killed.

Within Christian iconography, Sebastian is commonly depicted as partially naked, tied to a tree, and shot with multiple arrows. All of these elements are found within the version of his death depicted by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, the Italian High Renaissance artist known as Il Sodoma (1477–1549). In Sodoma’s version, Sebastian is pierced in his leg, side, and through the neck, and blood runs down his torso and legs. Above him, an angel hovers, holding a crown, symbolizing the glory that he will receive after his death, which appears imminent.

However, tradition holds that Sebastian survived these wounds and was nursed back to health by Irene of Rome, who is herself venerated as a saint. He then reportedly confronted Diocletian for his persecution of Christians, only to be clubbed to death.

This work may help us to do what Jesus asks his disciples to do in this passage from John:

Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you. (John 15:20)

There are many other versions of Sebastian’s martyrdom in the history of art, including those by other Renaissance artists such as Sandro Botticelli, Titian, and Andrea Mantegna, as well as later artists of the Catholic Reformation, including Albrecht Dürer, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, El Greco, and Peter Paul Rubens, many of whom depicted the lives—and deaths—of the saints.

Death, as much as life, affords the servant an opportunity to imitate the master.

 

References

Campbell, Stephen J. and Michael W. Cole. 2017. Italian Renaissance Art, 2nd edn, vols 1 and 2 (London: Thames & Hudson)

Lapidge, Michael. 2018. The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Terry-Fritsch, Allie, and Erin Felicia Labbie (eds.). 2016, Beholding Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (London: Routledge)

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