This beautifully finished relief appears to have its origins in the intense religious atmosphere of 16th century Spain. It may well depict a local martyr, but has hitherto escaped firm identification either regarding subject or author.
Decapitated heads most commonly represent John the Baptist, who was famously executed on the request of Salome, whose dancing so impressed Herod that he vowed to grant her any wish. At her mother's instigation, she requested the Baptist's head on a plate. St Paul, also martyred by having his head cut off with a sword is sometimes also represented. However, the presence of the soft hat and, particularly, the very obvious inclusion of the bleeding cut to the forehead would be highly unusual for either of these saints, and suggests a very specific identification was intended.
The somewhat gruesome subject, and the detailed rendering of the bleeding cut are both characteristic of Spanish realism in the depiction of religious suffering. In a report on the relief, Dr. Guendalina Serafinalli describes the present lot as a sculptural equivalent to the paintings of Luis de Morales (circa 1520 -?1586), known as 'el Divino' because his oeuvre consists entirely of religious subjects. Morales, who focused his attention on devotional images of suffering such as the Ecce Homo and Pieta, reflected the intense spirituality of contemporary Spanish mystics. The present relief would also have served as an image of contemplation, probably as part of an altar or reliquary devoted to the saint.