Saturday, January 20, 2024

A 14th Century Altarpiece of St Sebastian

The story of St Sebastian, whose feast is kept today jointly with that of Pope St Fabian, is one of the best known and most popular legends of the early martyrs. As recounted in the breviary, he was a soldier whose father was from Narbonne, an important port city in southern Gaul, and his mother from Milan; while serving in Rome, he used his position as an officer to protect and encourage the persecuted Christians. The emperor Diocletian made him a captain of the imperial bodyguard corps, but on discovering that he was a Christian, and being unable to persuade him to apostatize, had him tied to a stake and shot full of arrows, then left him for dead. When the Christians came to get his body for burial, they discovered that he was still alive, and so a woman named Irene took him home and cured him. After this, he met Diocletian again and reproved him for his cruelty, at which the emperor had him beaten to death, and his body thrown into a sewer. It was recovered by another woman named Lucina, who buried him in one of the Christian cemeteries outside the city. In the days of Constantine, a church was built over the site, which became an important place of pilgrimage. (The name of the area around this cemetery, “cata cumbas”, is the origin of the word “catacomb”; its original significance is not entirely clear.)

A depiction of the martyrdom of St Sebastian on the coffered ceiling of his Roman basilica. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Livioandronico2013, CC BY-SA 4.0
The basilica’s façade, part of a general renovation of the church done in the early 17th century. The entrance to the catacomb is through the arch immediately to the right of the façade. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by NikonZ7II. CC BY-SA 4.0)
Without going into the gory details, the extraction of an arrowhead from a human body is an extremely nasty business, and of course in the ancient world, would not only be likely to make the wound much worse, but also dramatically increased the risk of a fatal infection. St Sebastian’s recovery would certainly have been a long and very painful affair, which is why he was settled on a patron Saint against plagues, and particularly the bubonic plague, since those who survived the disease often faced a similarly long and painful convalescence. And so it is no surprise that during the Black Plague that ravaged Europe in the mid-14th century, devotion to him became particularly strong.

In 1374, following a new outbreak, the cathedral of Florence commissioned a native of the city, the painter Giovanni del Biondo, to make a new altarpiece in honor of St Sebastian; it is now housed in the cathedral museum. (It should be noted that the attribution of the work to del Biondo is not certain. All images from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)
The middle panel of the right side shows St Sebastian being beaten to death at the orders of Diocletian.
In the lower panel, he appears to Lucina, who takes his body to the cemetery outside the city for burial.
Many of the entries in Bl. Jacopo da Voragine’s Golden Legend end with accounts of posthumous miracles attributed to the various Saints. For the last six or seven years of his life, Jacopo was bishop of the port city of Genoa, which, like all port cities, was especially vulnerable to new plagues, and new strains of old plagues brought from abroad. (The ships that brought the Black Death to Europe were in fact Genovese.) But despite this, and despite Sebastian’s general popularity, his account ends with only two fairly brief miracle stories. The first (middle left panel) comes from the first book of Pope St Gregory the Great’s Dialogues (chapter 10), and recounts that a woman who had not abstained from marital relations the previous night came to the dedication of an oratory named for Sebastian, and was possessed by a devil. After suffering various misfortunes, she was eventually healed by Fortunatus, the bishop of Todi, who is noted in the Martyrology on Oct. 14 for his “boundless might in putting unclean spirits to flight.”
In the second miracle, St Sebastian intervenes to end a plague that was afflicting the Lombard capital city, Pavia, in 680, after an altar is built in his honor at the local church of St Peter, and a relic of him brought to the city from Rome. (This is recounted in Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards, 6, 5.) 
The upper sections of the two sides depict the Annunciation, a very common addition to altarpieces of all kinds and subjects, and especially in Tuscany, where the feast of the Annunciation was celebrated as the civil new year until 1749.

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