The size and shape of this panel identify it as part of the predella, or base, of an altarpiece. Predellas often included small narrative scenes from the lives of saints who were depicted on a larger scale in the altarpiece itself. This panel formed the base of an altarpiece at the church of San Andrea (Saint Andrew), in Camoggiano, North of Florence. It was painted by Bartolomeo di Giovanni — a noted specialist in predellas, who worked in Florence during the High Renaissance period. The subject of the panel is Saint Sebastian – a Roman soldier who was first shot with arrows and then beaten to death, after attempting to convert others to Christianity. In order to make clear that the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian took place in Rome, the artist has included several recognisable ancient Roman buildings (the Colosseum, the Arch of Titus, the Torre delle Milizie and the Pantheon).
In Renaissance painting and sculpture, Saint Sebastian was often portrayed as a ‘tortured soul’ who seemed to derive pleasure from pain. Due to the abundance of homoerotic depictions of the naked, muscular, arrow-pierced flesh of the martyr that were produced during the period, Saint Sebastian became one of the first ‘gay icons’. The Saint acquired a cult following within late nineteenth century gay communities.
It may seem strange that images of naked men were permitted in a Catholic church, at a time when sodomy was punishable by burning at the stake. However, the male nude had become increasingly popular during the Renaissance period, when artists sought to emulate the heroic male form of Greek and Roman art. Moreover, this panel ran along the base of an altarpiece, where it was significantly less visible to the congregation. Artists were therefore afforded more freedom in their portrayal of Christian scenes.
It was fortunate that the panel survived the puritanical purges of the monk Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) during the last decade of fifteenth century. Florence, due to the enlightened rule of the Medici family, had been a relatively liberal place for its time, where homosexuality was tolerated and even accepted within artists’ circles. However, in 1492, the ruler of the Florentine region, Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-14492) died. Savonarola seized control of the city, outlawed homosexuality, and began burning any objects that might ‘lead citizens into sin’ in his infamous ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’. This included any artworks influenced by Greco-Roman, or Pagan culture or showing naked flesh. Bartolomeo di Giovanni himself seems to have been accused of engaging in sodomy in 1492. The drive against secular art further limited Bartolomeo di Giovanni’s commissions. He was later driven to produce illustrations for Savonarola’s publications in order to earn a living. He died in poverty; his widow forced to beg for money from the local church.