“St. Sebastian”

Tyrol/South Tyrol
Around 1500
Lime wood carved
Remains of the original polychromy
Height 70 cm

The figure of Saint Sebastian (70 cm) was made in the Alpine region around 1500. The naked youth is depicted with typical golden loincloth and a rare high hat as well as tied to a tree trunk. His stigmata on arms, torso and legs are exposed, the arrows with which he was pierced are not preserved here. Sebastian served as an officer for Emperor Diocletian and was martyred for his Christian faith: he was tied to a tree where he was shot by numerical archers. Since he was thought to be dead, he was left behind; however, the arrows had not been able to kill him. A benefactress named Irene nursed him back to health; later, Sebastian again appeared before the emperor, who finally had him whipped to death and thrown into the Cloaca Maxima, Rome’s sewer. The nature of the martyrdom, as well as the marks left behind, place his martyrdom in the following of Christ.

The youthful body of the martyr is slightly bent; his right hand above his head and his left hand behind his back tied to the tree. The most distinctive feature is the high hat, which may represent a piece of armor. This hat is found especially in southern German/alpine Sebastian depictions of the late Gothic period. His detailed curls are hidden under the headgear; the face with half-open eyes, high cheekbones and slightly open mouth looks upwards in rapture. In French Burgundy, similar sculptures were created with softly modeled bodies and clinging loincloths; however, the boyish figure of Sebastian is also related to Donatello’s David (1444-46). Such examples with youthful physicality are found especially in Tuscan Sebastian terracottas, for example, by the noted early Italian Renaissance sculptor Matteo Civitali (1436-1501) of Lucca, from ca. 1492 (National Gallery of Art Washington D.C., 1943.4.76). These influences of the Italian early Renaissance spread northward to the alpine region of South Tyrol where this charming sculpture was also created around 1500.