St. Sebastian Tended by Pious Women
Francesco Rustici (1592, Siena-1626, Siena)
Oil on canvas
h: 137 cm; w: 219 cm
The painting is first documented in the Borghese collection in 1650 although it is possible Cardinal Scipione acquired it directly during the artist's short stay in Rome (1624–1625) shortly before his early death on his return home.
The painting shows a subject particularly common in the early 12th century: a pious women removing the arrows that martyred St. Sebastian and tending his wounds. According to a hagiographic account, Sebastian, an officer in Emperor Diocletian's Praetorian Guard who had converted to Christianity, was executed by archers who left him for dead. Tended by Saint Irene and her assistant, he returned to the Emperor with a new profession of faith, and was beaten to death with a club and his body left in the Cloaca Maxima.
The cult of this saint reached its height thanks to the writings of Cesare Baronio in the late 16th century, and his iconography included elements similar to that of Christ. In 1607, Scipione Borghese began the restoration of the old Paleo-Christian Basilica of St. Sebastian outside the town walls on the Via Appia as part of a building policy promoted by the Counter-Reformation that encouraged a revival of the cult of martyrdom. He entrusted the commission to Flaminio Ponzio, who was also the architect for the Villa Borghese.
The painting shows sentimentality in the face of the saint that inspires compassion in the viewer. The pose of the body is inspired by statues, and the twisting motion resembles one of the most well known ancient sculptures in Rome at that time, the Lacoonte.
Rustici handled this subject on several occasions. In his skilful modulation of light on the body of the martyr he demonstrates his knowledge of the innovations of Caravaggesque painting, although he did not adhere to them completely, accentuating the suggestion of the hagiographic account with the expressiveness of Bolognese painting.
St. Sebastian’s iconography is often associated with that of Christ. At the beginning of the 17th century the martyr is frequently represented at the moment he is found by the noblewoman, Irene, who takes care of him, in this way arousing the spectator’s feelings of compassion.
The martyr is said to be buried in the early Christian basilica of St. Sebastian on the Via Appia, which was restored by Cardinal Scipione Borghese.
Scipione Borghese (?)
The Borghese Collection was acquired by the Italian State in 1902.
Della Pergola, P., Galleria Borghese. I dipinti, II, Rome, 1959, n.72, p. 51.
Fumagalli, E., “Pittori senesi del Seicento e committenza medicea: nuove date per Francesco Rustici”, in Paragone, 41, 1990, 479/481, pp. 69–82.
Granata, B., in Siena e Roma: Raffaello, Caravaggio e i protagonisti di un legame antico, exhibition catalogue, Siena, 2005, pp. 378–379.
Copyright image: Archivio fotografico Soprintendenza Speciale PSAE e Polo Museale della Città di Roma.
Sofia Barchiesi, Marina Minozzi "St. Sebastian Tended by Pious Women" in "Discover Baroque Art", Museum With No Frontiers, 2019. http://www.discoverbaroqueart.org/database_item.php?id=object;BAR;it;Mus11;44;en
Prepared by: Sofia BarchiesiSofia Barchiesi
TITLE: Author and Researcher
Sofia Barchiesi, a graduate and specialist in Art History and recipient of a scholarship from the School of Mediaeval and Modern Art History at Lumsa University, has been working with the Superintendency for Historical Artistic Heritage and the Museums of Rome since the late 1980s. She was responsible for cataloguing the art of the region and museums of Rome, studying the period of the Counter-Reformation particularly closely. She works with journals and writes essays, alternating her research and teaching work., Marina MinozziMarina Minozzi
AFFILIATION: Borghese Gallery, Rome
TITLE: Head Art History Co-ordinator
Marina Minozzi, a graduate and specialist in Art History, is currently the Head Art History Co-ordinator at the Borghese Gallery, where she curates the collections from the 18th and 19th centuries and heads the museum’s Documentation Centre. She has published a range of papers, including many on art-collecting in Rome and particularly the Borghese collection. She is currently involved with the Ten Great Exhibitions project underway at the Borghese Gallery, and has written essays on the work of Bernini, Raffaello, Canova and Correggio.
Translation by: Laurence Nunny
Translation copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: IT1 58