San Sebastiano (c.1576)

Tiziano (c.1488-1576)

San Sebastiano (St Sebastian)
Oil on canvas, 210 x 115.5 cm
Hermitage MuseumSaint Petersburg

One of Titian’s most staggering works in terms of its tragic spirit is St Sebastian. What a gulf separates him from the placid personage of Perugino’s work, yet this is still an embodiment of that same ancient ideal of the beautiful young athlete. The figure of the youth is brought forward and occupies the full height of the canvas, appearing before us like a monument. But the face of the martyr, his eyes turned in supplication to the heavens and the agonized half-open mouth express profound suffering. It seems as if arrows are flying from all directions, plunging into a body that is still full of life. The executioners are not depicted – after all the forces of evil are faceless. You get the impression that it is Sebastian against the whole world. A world that has been plunged into chaos and has lost its distinctiveness. Before our very eyes the forces of destruction are taking possession of the hero. This effect is achieved through the use of colour. The painting is almost monochrome, yet at the same time its dark colour scheme is exceptionally complex. The paints applied in a thick layer form a rugged uneven surface and produce an impression of an especially thick atmosphere. This space is stifling. It cannot be lived in. This is the realm of death. Straining himself to the utmost, Titian’s martyr strives to resist the external aggression. He might be destroyed physically, but his spirit cannot be broken. (SHM)