And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

torsdag 20. juni 2013

Saint Sebastian with beard

As readers of this blog will have noticed, I have a particular fascination for Saint Sebastian (as evidenced here and here). This fascination stems in part from how his cult has affected medieval art and iconography, and in part from the iconographic evolution the saint himself underwent toward the close of the Late Middle Ages, when he was adapted into a more apollonian iconography. For more information on this transition, see Hasan Niyazi's excellent blogpost.

The transition of Sebastian from a soldier-saint largely of the same mould as SS. George and Christopher into an apollonian youth, is a testament to the quattrocento's commitment to classical postures and imagery. This is also the transition - or perhaps rejuvenation - of a bearded late-antique soldier growing into a barefaced athletic youngster. Such a transformation should of course not be misunderstood as a pagan appropriation or a return to the Roman pantheon, but it is interesting to note how ancient iconography was adapted into a Christian context, and how the Christian Saint Sebastian became represented through the symbols of the religious system he allegedly abandoned and which in turn resulted in his martyrdom.

In this blogpost, however, I present a few representations of Saint Sebastian from before and into the apollonian shift, depicting him with a bearded face in a manner customary to non-clerical male saints. It is interesting to note that the selection spans four centuries and includes both French, Italian and German renditions. Almost all the images are taken from the British Library online catalogue.

The torture of Saint Sebastian, MS. Royal 20 D VI, France, 2nd quarter of 13th century

From MS. Royal 19 B XVII, Legenda Aurea, France, 1382

From MS. Egerton 1070, French book of hours, c.1410

From MS. Yates Thompson 7, book of hours following the Roman Use, Florence or Mantua, c.1480

From MS. Yates Thompson 5, book of hours after the Roman Use, Central France, c.1500

In the last case I have cheated a little bit, since we clearly operate in a borderland. I have nonetheless decided to include this 16th-century German depiction, just to illustrate the variety which existed well into the apollonian paradigm.

Saint Sebastian, detail from the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald, c.1510
Image courtesy of this website

As we see, the depictions of Saint Sebastian retained a certain variety even after the Italian masters such as Andrea Mantegna and Sandro Botticelli had cast the saint in a new, apollonian appearance. We see also that Sebastian enjoyed a fairly wide geography of devotion, and this may of course account for some of this variety. It is, in any case, important to note that the most famous rendition of Saint Sebastian is far from the only one.

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