The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (Album II)

WAG 1995.153


This drawing by Gaspare Diziani is intended to portray the moment of the Roman soldier Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom. Like many visual representations of Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom, Diziani depicts Saint Sebastian as a handsome and muscular man tied naked to a tree, about to be shot with arrows. A winged angel hovers above him. However, this is not the scene of Sebastian’s death. Though his executioners left him for dead, he was found wounded but still living, by Irene, the widow of the martyr Castulus. She nursed the soldier back to health, only for him to be later rearrested and sentenced to death by the Roman emperor, Diocletian. He was killed by flagellation at the Hippodrome on the Palatine Hill in 287 AD, his corpse thrown in the sewer. It is thought that the abundance of such eroticised portrayals of the martyr’s naked, muscular, arrow-pierced flesh inspired the cult following Saint Sebastian attracted within late nineteenth century gay communities. Diziani was a proflic draughtsman known as one of the greatest proponents of the Rococo style of drawing. He trained in the Venetian studios of Gregorio Lazzarini (born in 1657, died in 1730) and Sebastiano Ricci (born in 1659, died in1734). He worked in Venice for most of his career, producing numerous altarpieces for churches in the city and fresco decorations for villas and palaces across the region. His fluid and expressive style was influenced by both Ricci and his younger Venetian contemporary Giovanni Pellegrini (born in 1675, died in 1741). Saint Sebastian, often accompanied by a winged putto or angel (as in this drawing) was a recurring motif in Diziani’s work. It appears in an altarpiece of ‘The Immaculate Conception with Saints Francesco de Paola and Saint Sebastian’ in the cathedral at San Vito al Tagliamento, painted between 1734 and 1740. It also appears in another ink drawing produced by Diziani entitled ‘The Crowned Virgin and Child in Glory, Adored by Saint Sebastian, Saint James and other Figures’. This drawing formed part of the Weld Blundell collection of 227 old master drawings and prints. The Walker Art Gallery purchased the collection in 1995 from the Trustees of the Weld Heirlooms Settlement.