The martyrdom of Saint Sebastian is a recurring theme on this blog, as can be seen here, here and here. This time I wish to introduce you to two renditions of this legend by 15th-century Italian painter Benozzo di Lese (1420-97), better known by his cognomen Gozzoli, which suggests he was fond of a feast (gozzoviglia = party). One of Gozzoli's perhaps most splendid and well-known works is his fresco work at the Chiesa di San Agostino in San Gimignano, executed in the period 1463-65. He did, however, also paint some magnificent frescoes in the Duomo di Santa Maria di Assunda, namely the decorations for the chapel of the city's patron saint Fina and a spectacular martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.
Courtesy of Wikimedia
I saw this wonder myself as I explored the cathedral of San Gimignano last summer, but then I had no idea that it was a work by Gozzoli. The fresco is found on the rear wall of the nave and is executed very skilfully in that familiar theatrical composition so typical of the Quattrocento, and which becomes particularly evident in the depictions of Saint Sebastian.
Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta
Sebastian was a very popular saint in 15th-century Italy because he was believed to guard his devotees against the sundry plagues that haunted the communes. In cities like San Gimignano, which had a rich mercantile estate willing to express its devotions expensively, it is therefore no wonder to find such a sumptuous and centrally located depiction as Gozzoli's.
During my stay in Tuscany I also happened upon another Gozzoli's renditions of Saint Sebastian, this time in the nearby city of Certaldo, which can be seen from the towers of San Gimignano. In one of the churches of the old city, the Chiesa di SS Tommaso e Prospero, located right next to the Pretorian palace, a beautifully painted altar can be found, where the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian can be found on the backside.
Chiesa di SS Tommaso e Prospero
As seen below, the martyrdom is splendidly depicted and surrounded by the coat-of-arms of the city (as seen by the onion, Certaldo's most famous produce) and local families. It is less grandiose than the fresco of San Gimignano, but the rigid style, the profusion of arrows and the beard of the saint are all recognisable features. It was likely executed around 1464-65, when Gozzoli was in Certaldo for the decoration of another local chapel.
What is most interesting about thes frescoes, however, is to note Sebastian's ante-apollonian beard, a detail that fell out of vogue towards the close of the 15th century, as painters like Mantegna and Botticelli turned to Classical renditions of Apollo for their models (hence ante-apollonian). This fashion is particularly evident in Mantegna's three paintings of the saint, the first of which dating as early as the 1450s. Benozzo Gozzoli, in other words, stuck to an older, pre-Quattrocento paradigm in his depictions of Saint Sebastian.