An ex-voto (from Latin: "by promise") is an object offered to the Divine to grant a wish; it is also the acknowledgement of an obtained favor or a promise's confirmation.
Ex-voto, Martirio de San Sebastián, by Ángel Zárraga, is no doubt a product of the painter's religious experience during childhood, which fills him with an atmosphere of spiritual contemplation, a motivation at the beginning of his distinguished trajectory as an artist to create a material bond, a union with the Divine. He thus dedicates his artwork to God and seeks, through the glorified figure of St. Sebastian, that "sublime protection" for his everyday artistic inspiration. In order for his plea to be heard, Zárraga highlights this offering of his creative talent under the customary form of the ex-voto:
This is my arduous and humble work
In this sign of his inner self, his mother is also involved... In the subtle and decreasing figure that emulates a donor from the medieval art world, the painter chooses an imploring woman as company, who appears kneeling down, her head covered in respect of the sacred figure. The blue background, symbolizing the celestial dimension, is illuminated with the sculptural and sensual figure of an adolescent, an allegory for the saint.
Zárraga wrote, in his "Mensaje a Durango" (Message to Durango), 1942:
In this bedroom, as night fell, my mother, whose name is Guadalupe, like our Virgin, would put my childish hands together and, kneeling down, she would teach me those prayers...
The representation of St. Sebastian, inspired by the posture of the Dying Slave of Michelangelo, shows great thought given to the fineness of the modeling and the correct anatomical description. A body sculpted lovingly, with a masterly use of matter and color, as if it was carved in newly polished marble. The saint, subtly touched by the symbol of martyrdom, faints away rejoicing in the serene ecstasy of his encounter with the Divine, thus constituting a pretext for the painter to highlight the beauty of the mannered nude. A probable model was Amadeo Modigliani, as he shared with Zárraga the aesthetic tasks of the flourishing Montparnasse group, as well as an intimate, daily friendship.
Zárraga was a studious apprentice of the mystical language of Belgian symbolists such as Fernand Khnopff and James Ensor, and of course of his Mexican teacher Julio Ruelas, of whom Zárraga affirms having been his only pupil. He never abandoned the playful recreation of mystery and messages; of the symbolic exacerbation of the senses, omnipresent to the last of his works, deserving thus the recognition as the finest symbolist painter in the context of 20th century modern Mexican painting, where he also took part as a poet of trade.
Spiritually, Ex-voto, Martirio de San Sebastián is recognized as the culmination for the poet and painter. Roberto Montenegro uses the manner of the ex-voto around 1921, and among the followers are outstanding artists of the 20th century such as Gabriel Fernández Ledesma and even Frida Kahlo, to cite a few.
Christianity accords importance not to the way we live, but to how we die; martyrdom being a most glorious event. Condemned because of his religious beliefs, St. Sebastian, born in Milan and speared to death, survives torture. Taken care of by Irene, he is finally beaten and stoned to death in the Roman Circus as he faces the Emperor Diocletian bent on the cruel extermination of Christians. The emperor's reign is known as the era of Martyrs.
Although his corpse was cast into the major sewer, the miraculous St. Sebastian revealed the location of his remains to Saint Lucy so that a Basilica to honor him be constructed there.
The saint, a high-ranking captain of the Praetorian Guard, was offered prayers since the Middle Ages to plead for the survival of collective catastrophes that decimated entire populations. Indeed, the intervention of his relics to end the plague on inhabitants of Rome in the year of 680 is a known fact. He is thus recognized as the patron saint of the mortally ill, wounded, plagued, as well as of merchants, tin, stone and leather workers, and modern day pandemics.
St. Sebastian, the worshipped martyr, is no doubt one of the great motivators of Christian faith and of the arts. He repeatedly appears throughout iconographic representations of Western Christianity and stands out as a figure of both popular and high arts in the 19th century and remains an important protector of artists to this day.
Zárraga was extremely fond of his Sebastián Ofrecimiento (Sebastian Offering), a symbolic, metaphysical and esoterical self-portrait. He even made a monumental version of it, 184 x 134 cm., that was purchased by the painter Isidro Fabela, his friend and intellectual guide, who considered it to be the jewel of his collection. Later on, the Mexican National Institute for the Fine Arts (INBA) acquired it. It hangs today on the walls of the National Museum of Arts (MUNAL) in Mexico City.
Ángel Zárraga was able to depict in this work the longings of the spirit, the cravings of the flesh and the infamies of the psyche in subtle symbolism, where the message is the prime intention that juxtaposes the submission of man to the dangers of coincidence, seen here as a virtue. The display of both painful and pleasurable feelings in an intimate ritual takes on an erotic, revealing, evocative and sibylline twist.
Ex-voto, Martirio de San Sebastián, carried out in a large format, was exhibited in the Autumn Salon of the Grand Palais in Paris in 1911. He also presented the oil painting El Don or La Dádiva (The Talent), and was admitted as a pendant, strengthening the beginning of a long and successful trajectory in France.
His participation in the event alongside important artists of the Parisian School such as Bonnard and Vuillard was celebrated in the Mundial Magazine (Paris, November of 1911) directed by Rubén Darío, in an article by Uruguayan critic Ulrico Brendel. Ex-voto, Martirio de San Sebastián was illustrated in its pages together with a photography of Zárraga. Juan José Tablada's review, published in Paris as well as in Mexico, praised the artist in the same way that Rubén Darío and Wallace Thompson wrote admiringly about the newcomer to the famous, avant-garde salon.
But Tablada felt strongly opposed to Brendel's comments, which spoke of the official salons as being stages for pathological cases of artistic sadism. Although Brendel assures that Zárraga held the lead among Latin American and Spanish painters with El Don and Ex-voto, Martirio de San Sebastián, he points out a mixture of sensualistic and mystical touches, of sinful taste, that insinuate a hidden intention in the artist...
Nevertheless, the importance lies solely in understanding that both Zárraga and St. Sebastian are worshipped in this transcendental work of art.
María Luisa Novelo
Huixquilucan, Mexico, March 2006
(Translated by Anaïs Vignal)