This drawing depicts the scene of Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom. The Roman soldier was persecuted for converting other soldiers to Christianity. Like many images made of the martyr, from the Renaissance period onwards, he is portrayed here as a handsome, muscular, young man with rippled torso. This contrasts with previous portrayals of Saint Sebastian as a middle-aged, stocky man. Similarly, this drawing follows other Renaissance imagery in depicting the Saint being shot with arrows as if this were the scene of his death. However, Sebastian survived this ordeal. He was nursed back to health by the Christian widow, Irene, only to be once again condemned to his death by the Emperor Diocletian. The saint was ultimately beaten to death, his body thrown into the sewer.
It has been suggested that this design was meant to be reproduced as an engraving or a medal. This idea is confirmed by the fact that silhouettes and internal details of the figures and landscape have been heavily indented with a stylus. However, although most of the 500 known drawings by Maerten de Vos were designs for prints no engraving is known which directly reproduces this image. The pose of the saint and the general placing of the archers is similar to that found in reverse in a rectangular engraving by Raphael Sadeler I ca.1584 after Maerten de Vos.
Maerten de Vos was a painter of altarpieces and the most prolific print designer of his generation. About 1600 prints are known after his designs. His busy, large workshop translated these into furniture, household furnishings, medals, and book illustrations, which were widely reproduced and distributed across Europe. He also influenced the work of his own pupils. Hendrick de Clerck (born in 1570, died in 1629), for example, painted an altarpiece for St. Martinus church in Asse, (Belgium) with a central panel of the Martyrdom St Sebastian. The preparatory drawing for this panel was based on the pose of the saint produced by de Vos.
After his death, Sebastian was canonised as a patron saint of archers and soldiers. It was also believed to be able to protect against the plague. It was thought that his courage in facing the arrows enabled him to immunise his devotees against the disease. Presumably whichever Guild might have commissioned the St Sebastian from Maerten de Vos had a particular connection with the saint, perhaps it was the Guild of Old Crossbowmen for whom he painted an altarpiece in 1590.