PROCACCINI, Giulio Cesare
(b. 1574, Bologna, d. 1625, Milano)

St Sebastian Tended by Angels

Oil on wood, 285 x 139 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

This altarpiece once decorated an altar of the church of Santa Maria presso San Celso in Milan. It was confiscated by the French authorities and then exhibited in the Louvre, before being sent to Brussels.

The Golden Legend recounts how Sebastian, originating from Milan, was appointed commander of the Praetorian Guard by Emperor Diocletian, who was unaware of his Christian faith. His open proselytism led to his being arrested and sentenced to be shot to death with arrows. Surviving this first torture, he was nursed by Irene. In the 17th century, artists at times replaced Irene by angels, preferring to the human and familiar side of this martyrdom scene a divine solemnity more in keeping with the criteria of the Counter-Reformation. Patron of archers' companies, St Sebastian has been very frequently represented in military costume, but at the Renaissance, he changes aspect to take on the form of a beautiful young man whose naked body artists delight to detail. Procaccini's composition is exemplary in this respect.

Projected violently forward by a strong lighting which places the vertical movement of the composition into relief, St Sebastian occupies the whole foreground of the painting. To the right, the large distended wing of the angel perfectly matches the curves of this "Christian Apollo" in an ascending movement which appears to carry it upwards towards celestial glory. Five little angels flutter about at his sides tending his wounds, brandishing the instruments of his torture or handing him a martyr's palm. Despite the breathtaking beauty of the nude and the balance of every element of the picture, the painting exudes a deep sense of drama, and a rare intensity of pathos.

Born in Bologna into a family of artists, Procaccini arrived when still a child at Milan, where he was probably trained in the workshop of his father Ercole and his brother Camillo. Between 1591 and 1599 he supplied several sculptures for the Milan Duomo, before becoming a major figure in Lombard painting in the early years of the 17th century. Commissioned in 1609, the St Sebastian must have been painted between 1610 and 1612, at the start of the most brilliant years of the painter's career, when Parmigianino's models commanded his full attention, inaugurating a new phase in his artistic evolution.