Martyrdom of St. Sebastian
These two paintings were made in Renaissance Italy, in the 1490s, for the church of San Andrea - Saint Andrew - in Camoggiano, near Florence. They're predella panels. Typically between three and five of these ran along the base of an altarpiece, depicting scenes relating to the holy figures in the big main panels above. As they could only be seen properly close to, artists were freer with their subject-matter. One of the panels shows Saint Andrew himself, disciple and patron saint of Scotland, in a little-known episode. He's just knocked on a bishop's door, about to save him from the devil disguised as a woman. Although given her prominent horns, it's hard to believe the bishop didn't have any idea who he was entertaining to supper. And the artist clearly doesn't demonstrate a particularly high opinion of women. The other panel shows the martyrdom by arrows of a rather feminine-looking Saint Sebastian, a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and died for his faith. In the background Rome's buildings include the Colosseum. Incredibly, Sebastian survived the arrows - only to be beaten to death. He was popular with artists at this time, giving them an excuse to paint a naked male body in contorted poses. The combination of pleasure and pain has given Sebastian homoerotic appeal ever since. In 1492 the artist here, Bartolomeo di Giovanni, a predella panel specialist, was accused of sodomy - homosexual acts. In Renaissance Italy sodomy was punished by burning at the stake. The Catholic Church considered all sexual relations not resulting in children unnatural. In Florence however, under the enlightened Medici rulers, homosexuality was tolerated, particularly amongst famous artists like Leonardo da Vinci. So much so that the German slang for 'bugger' was 'Florenzer'. But all that changed the year of Bartolomeo's accusation when the fanatical monk Savonarola took control. Five years later Savonarola 'persuaded' the Florentines to throw all their jewellery, books and paintings - especially those showing naked flesh - onto a huge bonfire, the 'Bonfire of the Vanities'. Not long after that Savonarola himself was burnt - at the stake - when the Florentines turned against him. But it was too late for Bartolomeo, who'd had to switch to illustrating Savonarola's publications in an attempt to earn a living. He died, in debt, in his forties. Before you move on, returning to Saint Andrew and the devil, on the table you'll find one of the earliest-known depictions of - the table fork.