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Mantegna, Saint Sebastian

Andrea Mantegna, Saint Sebastian, oil on wood panel, ca. 1456-59 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker For more art history videos, visit Smarthistory.org. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • leaf green style avatar for user John
    At he says that St. Sebastian was killed by arrows, but didn't he survive the arrow shooting after being nursed back to health by Irene, only to ultimately acheive matyrdom by being clubbed to death?
    (11 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Steven Zucker
      Thanks for the great question. You are correct. As I understand it (from the perspective of an art historian, not a theologian), Sebastian is, as you write, most commonly believed to have survived the attempt to martyr him with arrows. According to this tradition he was then healed by Irene, and, as you mention, clubbed to death.

      It is interesting to note that this narrative is understood by some scholars as a later development within the Church, early renderings simply portray Sebastian as a Church Father and images of him with his tell-tale arrows seem to have developed only during the early Renaissance, in other words, very late. And no images of the clubbing come to my mind though they may well exist.

      In the video, Beth and I go on to say that Mantegna creates an additional narrative that contrasts the grand ruins of Rome with the transcendent faith of the Christians. See the Catholic Encyclopedia for more on these issues: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13668a.htm
      (18 votes)
  • aqualine sapling style avatar for user sapphireblue
    Im a little bit confused as to the meaning of,what looked to me like two hikers dressed in what could be perceived as modern day apparel. On the upper left of this painting.
    (5 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Stuart W
      If you look close, it's not quite modern, but it was modern for the 15th century. From what I've read, this painting is believed to have been commissioned as a jump-start back to Venetian culture after years where the city had been dominated by plague. So this could be mirroring the idea that St. Sebastian survived the arrows of the Romans, and we, represented by the two figures walking away from this gruesome scene, have survived the pestilence.

      This is one of 3 paintings that Mantegna conceived on the same subject. Wikipedia has a decent article on them, I'll bet you didn't notice the "cloud warrior"!
      (4 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user Dana Hager
    Is there a reason for the horse and rider painted in the upper cloud?
    (3 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Миленa
    Do art historians ever consider that the artist might have made a mistake? For example, what if Mantegna wasn't deliberately painting crumbling architecture to show Christianity's triumph over antiquity, but just forgot to paint it as new because he saw Roman ruins his whole life?
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers tree style avatar for user Ami K
    There seems to be two other depictions of St. Sebastian by Mantegna, and why is that? How are the others different from this one?
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user LouLou Schiavo
    I assume the Jews and pharisees did this right?
    (0 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user mafricanoI94
      Saint Sebastian was martyred during the Diocletian persecution. Diocletian, the Roman emperor ordered him to be tied and the stake and shot (for being a Christian and encouraging other Christians to stay true to the Church), but the arrows did not kill him.St. Irene went to retrieve his body, found him alive, and nursed him back to health. Saint Sebastian later gave sight to a blind girl, and then stood on a step in the city to speak out against the Emperor (as he was passing by), so Diocletian ordered him to be beaten to death, and thrown in a pit, where he died.
      (7 votes)

Video transcript

("I Don't Want to Leave You" by Royalty Free Music Crew) - [Voiceover] The nude had been off limits for 1000 years. - [Voiceover] In the middle ages, the only opportunity the artists had to paint or sculpt the nude, was to do Adam and Eve. But with the renaissance, we have this renewed interest in the human body, and artists looking for opportunities to paint it. - What we're looking at is Andrea Mantegna's very small painting of Saint Sebastian. It's in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. And it's this tall, thin, painting, that is completely improbable, and in some ways it is just an elaborate ruse to be able to paint the human body. But of course Mantegna was also deeply in love with all things classical. - And both of those things are really in evidence here. - Look at all the fragments of sculpture and architecture that come from his study of Ancient Rome. - And of course the figure of Saint Sebastian himself looks like an Ancient Greek or Roman sculpture. According to legend, Saint Sebastian was in the employ of the ancient Roman Emperor Diocletian, who didn't know that Sebastian was a Christian. - Apparently Sebastian came to the aid of two other Christians who had been found out. And, therefore his own Christianity was revealed. And he was ordered to be executed when he refused to renounce his Christianity. And so, he was shot with arrows, but he survived that attack. - Right, and was later clubbed to death. - It's easy for us in the 21st Century to forget how little was known about the human body. What knowledge had once existed from Ancient Greece and Rome, had largely been lost. - Here was a generation that was rediscovering the body for the first time in 1000 years. - You couldn't go and buy a book on anatomy. You couldn't look something up on the web. This was a time when rediscovering the body meant an investigation of the body from scratch. With very little knowledge left from antiquity. - And the understanding of the body in the ancient world like Contrapposto, is just being rediscovered in this century. And look at the way in which the S curve of the body is accentuated here. You can really see an artist who is studying ancient sculpture. In fact, one could probably argue that the arrows themselves almost function as diagramming lines, that help us see the shifting axis of the body. But there are also funny anachronisms here. Things are disjointed in terms of time. Since Sebastian is being martyred by an Ancient Roman Emperor, at a time when Ancient Rome is at the height of its power. And yet, what the artist is showing us here is Ancient Roman Architecture in ruins. The way it looked in Mantegna's own time. - And he's clearly relishing the beauty of those ruins as ruins. - It's as if the faith of Christianity has outlived the mighty Roman Empire. - Right, which lays in ruins around the feet of the Saint. - Here's an artist who is in part responsible for creating the art that we know of, as the Early Renaissance. And characteristic of that moment, we see someone who is giving us as much visual information as possible. Look at the precision even in the buildings of extreme distance. That beautiful atmospheric perspective. That careful delineation of form, of mass. - Right, modelling so we've got a sense of the three-dimensionality of the body, of the light coming from the left. We can see Mantegna's use of linear perspective in the tiles on the floor. In a way this has everything we expect of the Renaissance. - This is bringing together those fragments from antiquity that were just being rediscovered. This is trying to place these figures in a world that we can occupy. - And a vast landscape. Pehaps we see the archers retreating on a road in the background, and a whole city that looks very much like an Ancient Roman city. - Here's an artist that is central to the Northern Italian tradition. Somebody who is working in Venice, working in Padua, understands what's taking place in Flourence, and is just such an exemplar of this reinvention, of ancient humanism. ("I Don't Want to Leave You" by Royalty Free Music Crew)