(b. 1445, Firenze, d. 1510, Firenze)

St Sebastian

Tempera on panel, 195 x 75 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Botticelli's St Sebastian was put up with great ceremony in 1474 on one of the pillars in Florence's Santa Maria Maggiore church on 20th January, the feast day of the saint. The picture's location explains its unusually long format. It had been common custom since mediaeval times to affix paintings to the pillars of church interiors. In the course of time, however, these pictures were removed from their original locations, so that the interior view of churches as they appear today, with their unadorned pillars, in fact presents an inaccurate picture.

The saint is serenely enduring the six arrows that have been shot into him. Clothed only in a loincloth, he is standing on the stumps of a tree that has been cut to the shape of a stake and which rises suddenly in the centre of the picture, in front of the landscape and sky. The torture is past, Sebastian's tormentors have already moved on and are hunting for herons. The scene showing the torturers leaving is a very rare theme for depiction.

If we leave the portrayal of the dead Holofernes out of consideration, then St Sebastian may be regarded as Botticelli's first male nude. The artist is following classical ideas in his harmonious proportions and balanced "contrapposto". However, a sense of uncertainty is revealed in the foreshortening of the saint's feet, confirming this picture as belonging to Botticelli's early phase.