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Martyrdom of St. Sebastian

Bartolomeo di Giovanni, 1496 - 1500 possibly

WAG 2755

About this object

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.

Object specifics

  • Artist(s)
    Bartolomeo di Giovanni (Italian, born:active 1488, died:26th October 1501)
  • Date
    1496 - 1500 possibly
  • Materials
    Tempera; Panel
  • Measurements
    25.4 x 52.07 x 7.3 cm; framed: 39.4 x 66.3 cm
  • Physical description
    Painting of a group of five figures depicting the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. The central figure (Saint Sebastian) is nude (other than a loin cloth) and has been tied to a post and shot with arrows by the other four men. The man on the far right is resting on his bow, whilst the other three are shown in the act of shooting their arrows. The background shows ancient Roman buildings (the Colosseum, the Arch of Titus, the Torre delle Milizie and the Pantheon).
  • Related people
    Bartolomeo di Giovanni (Artist/maker); Jackson (Previous owner); Liverpool Royal Institution (Previous owner); Robert Fagan and Charles Grignion (Previous owner); William Roscoe (Previous owner); Thomas Winstanley (Previous owner)
  • Other number(s)
    WAG Inventory Number: 2755
  • Credit line
    Unknown or unrecorded
  • Location
    Walker Art Gallery, Room 01
  • Collection
    From the Walker Art Gallery collections

Ownership

Previous owners

  • Liverpool Royal Institution

    Owned from: 1819
    How acquired: transfered to the Liverpool Royal Institution by 1819
    Owned until: 1948
    Disposal method: On loan and on display at the Walker Art Gallery from 1893; ownership transfered in 1948
  • William Roscoe

    Owned from: 1807-04-08
    How acquired: probably purchased via Thomas Winstanley from Christie's on 7-8 April 1807, lot 25, as by Masaccio
    Owned until: 1816-09-23
    Disposal method: transfered to the Liverpool Royal Institution by 1819
  • Thomas Winstanley

    Owned from: 1807-04-08
    How acquired: purchased from Christie's on 7-8 April 1807, lot 25, as by Masaccio
    Owned until: 1807-04-08
    Disposal method: probably purchased on behalf of William Roscoe
  • Jackson

    Owned from: Unknown or unrecorded
    How acquired: Unknown or unrecorded
    Owned until: 1807-04-08
    Disposal method: sold by Jackson of Ebury House, Chelsea, at Christie's 7-8 April 1807, lot 25, as by Masaccio
  • Robert Fagan and Charles Grignion

    Owned from: Unknown or unrecorded
    How acquired: supposedly acquired in Rome during French occupation
    Owned until: 1806-05-29
    Disposal method: sold Squibb's 29 May 1806, lot 1 (with WAG 2756), as 'Old Florentine School', £1 1s 0d
Object view = Fine Art
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