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

St Sebastian

c. 1506
Tempera on canvas, 213 x 95 cm
Galleria Franchetti, Ca' d'Oro, Venice

Between 1490 and 1506, the year he died, Mantegna painted several devotional paintings in which the main figures are represented as reliefs standing out against a mostly dark background. Inspired by reliefs on classical tombs, these figures are shown partially hidden behind stone balustrades or a frame. The most impressive of the paintings from Mantegna's final years include the Ecce Homo in the Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris, and the St Sebastian in the Ca' d'Oro, Venice.

The martyrdom of St Sebastian was a recurring theme in Mantegna's work, favoured because it combined a religious subject with the chance to paint an athletic male nude. At the beginning of 1506, the plague was rife in Mantua, and this saint was called on for protection, since his martyred body symbolized a triumph over pain and death.

In his painting of 1506, Mantegna again employs the painted frame he used in earlier paintings, but here it takes the form of a stone niche. The imposing figure of the saint, with its almost sculptural outline, emerges with dramatic sharpness from the dark background. To illustrate the saint's return from death all the more clearly, Mantegna broke with tradition and portrayed a St Sebastian who is not bound to a pillar or a tree. The parchment wrapped around the candle at the right bottom corner carries the inscription: NIL NISI DIVINUM STABILE EST: CAETERA FUMUS ("Nothing is eternal but God: all else is smoke"). Thus the painting becomes a representation of vanitas and warns of the transitory nature of earthly values.

This extraordinarily dramatic work was painted for the bishop of Mantua Ludovico Gonzaga and was still in the artist's studio when he died.