(b. 1431, Isola di Carturo, d. 1506, Mantova)

St Sebastian

Tempera on wood, 68 x 30 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

In 15th-century Italian art, portrayals of St Sebastian offered the opportunity of depicting an idealized nude figure in a classical setting. Mantegna tied the saint to the column of a triumphal arch both to emphasize his heroism and at the same time to stress the precise historic setting. The triumphal arch stands in a courtyard closed off by a wall. Debris from statues and a fragment of bacchanalian relief lie around, indicating the fall of the pagans and the victory of Christianity.

A bearded horseman can be seen in the cloud to the left. Images in the cloud like this, already described in classical art theory and adopted by Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci, were ascribed to the genius of nature, which could stimulate artists and inspire them to improve on nature with their creations.

The vertical inscription at the right side of the saint is the signature of Mantegna in Greek.