(b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)
The Martyrdom of St Sebastianc. 1475
Oil on wood, 67,4 x 67,7 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
Born at Seligenstadt near the German city of Frankfurt, Hans Memling became a citizen of Bruges in 1465, of which he was one of the best known painters until his death in 1494. The Martyrdom of St Sebastian, the style and technique of which are typical of this artist, has long been attributed to him. It appears to have been painted around 1475.
Sebastian, a young captain of the Praetorian guard, assisted Christians during Diocletian's persecutions at the end of the third century. Unmasked, he refused to abjure his faith and was handed over to archers on the Field of Mars in Rome. Left for dead, he survived thanks to the care of a widow called Irene. When subsequently he returned to the imperial palace to protest against the cruel treatment reserved for the Christians, he was again arrested and put to death in the Coliseum.
In this high quality painting, Hans Memling concentrates on Sebastian's first confrontation with his executioners. The action takes place in a raised site, dominating a vast landscape of a port city surrounded by a medieval wall. To the right one archer has just shot his arrow, whilst the second is stretching his bow. Behind them, half hidden between two rocks, Emperor Diocletian is giving the order to execute the sentence. To the left Sebastian, chest bared, is attached to a tree, his shirt and rich brocade mantle cast at his feet. Five arrows pierce him. Despite his martyrdom, no sign of suffering marks the saint's features. This sign of the triumph of faith is typical of Memling, looking for suavity of forms. Added to this, his fine sense of detail and rendering of materials, particularly well represented by the magnificent brocade of the mantle in the foreground, place him among the great Flemish painters of the 15th century.
The arrow being the symbol of the plague, Sebastian, who survived his martyrdom, became the protector par excellence against this sickness. The saint's pose, with the right arm along his body and his left arm attached to the tree above his head, can also be related to German engravings accompanying prayers against the plague. In addition, the arrows which pierce his four limbs and his side make reference to the five wounds of the crucified Christ.