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A Delicate St. Sebastian from Brabant

A Delicate St. Sebastian from Brabant

This intriguing wooden sculpture, still with its original polychromy, depicts saint Sebastian and it has certainly been made in the region of Brabant, a northern-European cultural area with renowned for an important tradition in wooden sculpture from the Middle Ages onwards.

The Saint is tied to a tree trunk with ropes, the left arm fastened over his head and the right one lowered and bended backwards; a green and red cloth surrounds the hips, the knees are slightly bending, and the feet are placed in opposite directions against each other over a rounded base. The peaceful face – with gentle almond-shaped eyes, arched eyebrows and a tiny mouth – turns downwards and is framed by hair, neatly divided by a central parting and falling to the sides of his face in short curls.
Many elements lead to attribute this sculpture to the circle of the “Master of Koudewater” (Meester van Coudewater), an artist active in Northern Brabant during the second half of 15th century and of whom no more than about ten sculptures are known.

St.Sebastian_Pose Comparison

Left: Master of Koudewater, Saint Michael, Uden, Krona Museum | Right: Master of Koudewater, Saint Agnes, Private Collection.

Although the pose of this Saint Sebastian is more open and dynamic if compared to other works attributed to the sculptor, there is a remarkable resemblance of the hair of both our sculpture and other two works by the Master of Koudewater: a saint Michael housed in the Krona Museum in Uden and a saint Agnes in a private collection.
There are also further comparable features: the small rounded base is similar to the one in the Uden sculpture, as well as the shape of the mouth, the arched eyebrows and the straight nose; other similarities can be underlined in the rendering of the hands; all three sculptures are carved in walnut wood, a timber that the Master of Koudewater preferred over oak, which is much more commonly used in this area; finally, these three works have approximately the same height: saint Sebastian, cm 81; saint Michael, cm 96; saint Agnes, cm 73.

S.Sebastian_details

The sculpture undoubtedly depicts saint Sebastian, an officer in Emperor Diocletian’s army (284 – 313), who, after being shot with arrows, survived thanks to the care of the pious Irene, but then, showing up before Diocletian, he was executed. His bones are buried in the roman catacombs of St Peter and St Paul – where we find one of the earliest examples of his representation. As described in the Legenda Aurea, during the plague of the year 680, the Saint’s relics were transferred to Pavia, miraculously bringing the pestilence to an end. From then on, Saint Sebastian was worshipped as one of the saints of healing, together with saint Roch and saint Christopher.
While in the Middle Ages the Saint was portrayed as a soldier in armour, from the second half of the 14th century onwards there was a radical change in iconography: saint Sebastian became a beautiful young man, with an ethereal and virginal appearance. Indeed, the god Apollo himself, invoked in cases of plague, in the representations of the classical period offers his splendid naked body to vulnerability, just as the martyr’s body is offered, defenceless, to martyrdom. The torture, however, immediately acquires a metaphorical meaning: the wounds on the body are the only visible trace of the sufferings of the spirit. Of course, the opportunity to depict the body of a half-naked man was offered to Renaissance artists only by the figures of Christ and Saint Sebastian; the Saint, in particular, who often assumed a twisted pose, became the bearer of the most intense results of anatomical rendering.

Sebastian_whole-view

Returning now to our sculpture, the curious detail of the feet, crossed like in a dance move, appears around 1470 mainly in the German area and responds to the taste for twisted bodies typical of northern Europe; here, however, the softened anatomy highlighting the volumes of the muscles undoubtedly leads us towards the Northern Brabant area, characterised by a taste for rounded features and softened edges. The origin of this pose can be traced back to a couple of works by two of the greatest graphic artists of the late 15th century: an engraving by Martin Schongauer (c. 1435 – 1491) and a silverpoint drawing by Hans Holbein (c. 1460-1524), which has been reinterpreted in the beautiful reliquary now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The crossed and counterposed pose of the legs is undoubtedly an iconographic device alluding to instability, fragility and failure.

St.Sebastian_Pose Comparison

Left: M. Schongauer, St. Sebastian (engraving), New York, Metropolitan Museum. | Centre: Silver Reliquiary of St. Sebastian, c. 1497, London, Victoria and Albert Museum. | Right: H. Holbein, St. Sebastian (silverpoint drawing, 1497-1500), London, British Museum.

Vulnerability and openness to martyrdom are also evoked by another particular formal feature: the raised arm revealing the chest, often its left side, the seat of the heart. This pose implies the impossibility of protecting the vital organs and it’s a gesture deeply rooted in the imagery of Western culture, running through the entire history of art, from ancient Greece to the present day (Gury 2005). Among the best known depictions of saint Sebastian with his left arm raised, one can mention the marvellous picture by Hans Memling (ca. 1475? Brussels, Musée des Beaux-Arts). At closer inspection, one can also notice that in Memling’s painting and in most of the depictions of the Saint made during the second half of the 15th century, the right arm of St. Sebastian, i.e. the lowered one, is normally tied to the trunk at wrist level. On the other hand, in Holbein’s drawing, as in our sculpture, the right arm is tied to the trunk at elbow level, demonstrating a further link between the German master’s invention and the sculpture examined here.

S.Sebastian_comparison

Left: H. Memling, The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, c. 1475, Bruxelles, Musée des Beaux-Arts (detail) | Right: H. Holbein, St. Sebastian, London, British Museum (detail).

In conclusion, it is interesting to note that in this rare Northern Brabant sculpture, saint Sebastian’s naked, sweet and beautiful body is in no way marred or humiliated by martyrdom and wounds, thus representing the solidity of faith and hope in suffering and in any kind of adversity (Darriulat 1998).

Sebastian_side

Master of Koudewater, workshop of
SAINT SEBASTIAN
Northern Brabant
Late 15th century
Polychromed walnut wood
Cm 81 h

Study by Nicolas Hendrickx, M.A. Courtauld Institute of Art

References: L. Réau, Iconographie de l’art chrétien, 3 chap. 2, Presses Universitaires de France, 1958; Saint Sébastien. Rituels et figures, exhibition catalogue (Paris, Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, 25 November- 16 April 1984), ed. by J. Cuisinier, Paris, 1983 ; J. Darriulat, Sebastien, le renaissant : sur le martyre de saint Sébastien dans la deuxième moitié du Quattrocento, Paris 1998 ; Van Liebergen, ed.by, Beelden in de Abdij. Middleeuwse kunt uit het noordelijk deel van het hertogdom Brabant, Nijmegen, 1999; W. Prins, ed. by, Deftige Devotie. Museum voor religieuze kunst Uden, Uden, 2003; F. Gury, De l’amazone blessée à Saint Sèbastien, in Iconografia 2005. Immagini e immaginari dall’antichità classica al mondo moderno, Rome 2006, pp. 335-351.

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