Saint Sebastian as Martyr

Jusepe de Ribera
Spanish, c. 1591–1652
Saint Sebastian, 1636
Oil on canvas
50 x 39 3/8 in. (127 x 100 cm)
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Sebastian, a Roman soldier martyred for his Christian faith, was a popular saint in early modern Europe who was often called upon by the faithful in times of need, particularly for protection against the plague. Artists typically depicted Sebastian tied against a tree and pierced by arrows—the first failed attempt at killing him. The subject provided the opportunity to depict an idealized male nude figure, and this group of paintings by Spanish and Italian artists shows a range of approaches to the subject and the naturalistic rendering of the male form. Images of martyrs were important vehicles for spreading the values of the Counter-Reformation, which encouraged the faithful to strengthen their convictions by meditating on the earthly suffering and heavenly reward of the saints, but such pictures could also pose problems for display because of their perceived eroticism.