Collection Online

Saint Sebastian being cured by Irene
(c. 1653)

Medium
oil on canvas
Measurements
142.0 × 195.7 cm
Accession Number
214-4
Department
International Painting
Credit Line
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1934
Gallery location
17th to 18th Century European Paintings Gallery
Level 2, NGV International
About

Sebastian was a member of the Roman imperial guard in the second century AD, who used his position to encourage imprisoned Christians to persevere in their faith. Himself arrested and accused before the pagan emperors Maximian and Diocletian, Sebastian was tied to a stake, shot with arrows, and left for dead. Miraculously surviving this torture, he was nursed back to health by Irene, the widow of another martyr, only to be once more arrested and bludgeoned to death in the Hippodrome. As plague erupted throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, Sebastian was commonly invoked as saintly protector against pestilence, his resurrection promising salvation from the ‘arrows’ of death and disease that were perceived to have been ‘loosed upon humanity by an angry God’.

However, with the Counter-Reformation revival of interest in the lives of the early Christians, the role of Irene received renewed attention, and gradually the legend of Sebastian was transformed from a tale of supernatural triumph into one of human suffering and compassion. Hence the emphasis that the distinguished Neapolitan artist Luca Giordano places here upon the healing episode: the beholder is invited to participate in the ordeal of Sebastian, to ‘actualise’ the sacred narrative in his or her own life by emulating the pious, redeeming works of Irene (who is shown staunching the flow of the saint’s blood, assisted by her maid). Such exhortatory imagery would have had particular resonance in the artist’s city of Naples, in a century ravaged not only by plague, but by the vicissitudes of Spanish rule and by several devastating earthquakes as well.

The dramatic lighting and taut compression of space employed here by Luca Giordano are typical of his early years in Naples.