St. Sebastian and the Plague
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
January 20 honors the martyr St. Sebastian. Many Italian towns were devoted to the saint and venerated him. A commonly depicted saint in Italian art, he is easily recognized by the many arrows piercing his flesh as he is tied to a tree or a column. He lived during the third century and died in approximately 288. He served in Roman Emperor Diocletian’s army. Following his conversion to Christianity, he was condemned to death by Diocletian for helping other persecuted Christians. The military was commanded to kill him with arrows – sort of a target practice. He did not die of his many arrow wounds; he was healed and later confronted Diocletian who condemned him to death again by bludgeoning him. He did perish this time and was dumped into the sewers.
In the Middle Ages he was depicted as a knight with bow and arrows. In later artworks, after the Renaissance, he was sometimes represented being clubbed to death, but there are numerous depictions of him with one or multiple arrows piercing his body. St. Irene, who nursed him back to health from his arrow wounds, is usually depicted in post-Renaissance paintings.
St. Sebastian holds an important place in the Middle Ages and Renaissance as he was the patron saint of the plague, which devastated the population. The fresco of St. Sebastian at the beginning of this entry is by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Collegiata church of San Gimignano. The saint is typically portrayed in a peaceful state during his painful ordeal. Plague appeared in San Gimignano in January 1463 and June 1464 resulting in the town commissioning a painting of St. Sebastian. The fresco was completed in 1466.
Christ and Mary appear above Sebastian along with angels. The depiction, like many others, shows similarities between Sebastian’s and Jesus’ wounds in their suffering. Mary and Christ look down with compassion for the martyr and the inhabitants of San Gimignano who underwent repeated bouts of pestilence. The fresco of the Last Judgement by Taddeo di Bartolo (1410-15) appears directly above Gozzoli’s St. Sebastian. It was not by chance that the fresco is bordered by scenes of Paradise and Hell on opposing walls. The plague was associated not only with God’s fury but as a portent of the second coming. Suffering, martyrdom, death and judgement were powerful images for the citizens.
Gozzoli completed another St. Sebastian just two years earlier for the church of Sant’Agostino in San Gimignano. The day the painting was dedicated the plague ended. The people felt safeguarded and defended by their belief in St. Sebastian.
The St. Sebastian below is a detail from a larger Misericordia altarpiece by Piero della Francesca currently in the Museo Civico, Sansepolcro. The Misericordia is a large altarpiece made up of multiple panels – called a polyptych – and St. Sebastian is one of the saints depicted. He stands next to John the Baptist. The name Misericordia refers to the Madonna of Mercy and its lay confraternity that did charitable works including caring for plague victims in its hospital. St. Sebastian was a venerated saint in Sansepolcro, east of Florence, and on the opposite side of Tuscany from San Gimignano.
Although Piero worked on this painting sporadically through the 1450s and did not complete it until 1462 the style is quite different from Benozzo Gozzoli’s. These are good examples of the many concurrent artistic trends of the 1400s. Gozzoli’s figures are flatter and he is more inclusive with the number of figures in his composition while Piero reduces the number of figures and eliminates extraneous content in order to give maximum expression to the subject matter. Piero’s figures are modeled and more naturalistic; Gozzoli’s are more ornamental. For example, in each respective painting the number of arrows the artist depicted wounding St. Sebastian is indicative of different artistic approaches.
Ahl, Diane Cole. Benozzo Gozzoli. Yale University Press, 1996.
Banker, James R. Piero della Francesca: Artist and Man. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Giorgi, Rosa. Saints in Art. Getty Publications. 2003.
Wood, Jeryldene M., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca. Cambridge University Press, 2002.