(b. 1541, Candia, d. 1614, Toledo)

St Sebastian

Oil on canvas, 191 x 152 cm
Museo Catedralicio, Palencia

The St Sebastian is El Greco's first life-size male nude, and it is one of the key works of the artist's first years in Spain.

The Saint abandoned after his martyrdom and presumed death. The style is that of around 1580. The frontal placing of the nude figure and treatment of the forms avoids a three-dimensional emphasis. The greater prominence of the setting - and of actual depth, in the vista on the right - compared with the paintings for Santo Domingo, the Cathedral and the Escorial, depends on the subject. In comparable representations of Saints, as of the Magdalene or Saint Jerome in the wilderness, he continues to indicate a setting. Where the image alone is demanded, as in his series of Apostles, a setting is omitted. In this painting the forms of tree and rock and the silhouette of the foliage are made to continue the plane of the figure. It is perhaps the natural sequence in the process of dematerialisation that the more flexible elements, the draperies, preceded the nude figure and natural forms.

El Greco did not use the pose again for a Saint Sebastian. A related figure is the Christ in the Prado Baptism of some fifteen to twenty years later; the Saint Jerome of his last year shows the culmination of this development. The compositional motif of the pose, with the outstretched leg taking the movement upwards appears in the Adoration of the Shepherds of similar date, and indeed in El Greco's work is first met in the Adoration of the Modena Triptych.