Dr. Susan Barnes confirms that the present, hitherto unpublished painting is an autograph work by Van Dyck, and will include it in her forthcoming catalogue of the paintings executed by Van Dyck in Italy (from circa 1621-1627). This is to appear as part of the corpus of Van Dyck's paintings compiled in collaboration with Dr. Nora de Poorter, Sir Oliver Millar and Professor Horst Vey, to be published by Yale University Press.
The picture connects closely with one of Van Dyck's treatments of the subject in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich; indeed the two works are painted on a canvas of very similar-looking weave. The Munich picture is very slightly larger and differs chiefly in the presence of the two cavalrymen in the top right. In the present work, the red drapery does not extend around the shoulders of the bearded soldier, while the youth holding the quiver is placed slightly further away. The bow held by this soldier is strung and the face of the Saint differs - chiefly in the size of the eyes. Finally the white piece of clothing lying in the foreground is less pronounced. In both paintings, the two fingers of the captor's right hand binding the Saint's legs appear to be afterthoughts.
The rediscovery of another autograph version of a Saint Sebastian by Van Dyck is a notable occurrence. The theme of the youthful Saint being bound for his ordeal was evidently popular with the artist and/or his early patrons, and autograph repetitions or variants of his more ambitious compositions are a characteristic of his early production.
Three other well known realisations of the theme are known in the Van Dyck canon: that in the Louvre, that in the National Gallery of Scotland (which began as a composition similar to that in the Louvre) and a variant of the Louvre picture also in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. The relationship of the first two has to a degree been clarified by X-radiographs of the Edinburgh picture, but until x-radiographs are taken of all these pictures their relationship will largely remain a matter of conjecture (for the most recent discussion, see S. Barnes, in the catalogue of the exhibition, Anthony van Dyck, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1990-1991, under nos. 3 and 22). Such must also remain the case with the relationship of the second rendering in Munich and the present picture. Copies or versions of both are in the Chrysler Museum and the J.B. Speed Art Museum respectively (see E. Larsen, The Paintings of Anthony van Dyck, Freren, I, 1988, fig. 70, II, nos. 244 and 245). Konrad Renger in his draft entry of his forthcoming catalogue of Flemish paintings in the Alte Pinakothek believes the latter to be a copy; he classifies the present picture as autograph(?).
Glück (Van Dyck Des Meisters Gemälde, Klassiker der Kunst, London, 1931, p. 134) believed that the Munich picture was executed early during Van Dyck's stay in Italy, with which view Renger is in close but not full agreement. This is also now the view of Susan Barnes. Such a dating would seem to be confirmed by the canvask, which certainly looks to be Italian, possibly Neapolitan. Whether the Munich picture and the present lot (on a canvas of similar appearance) were executed in southern Italy, either in Rome in 1623 or Palermo in 1624, must remain open to debate.
The handling of the present work and the Munich picture seems freer and earlier than that of the Tatton Park Stoning of Saint Stephen which has been dated 1622-24 (see C. Brown, in the catalogue of the exhibition, Van Dyck 1599-1641, Antwerp and London, 1999, no. 32). A preparatory drawing for the captor binding the Saint and the soldier in armour grasping the arrows is on the reverse of the Courtauld Institute Galleries Princes Gate Collection Ecce Homo (see Count A. Seilern, Flemish Paintings & Drawings at 56 Princes Gate London SW7, vols. 4 and 4i, Addenda, 1969, no. 302 recto and verso, pp. 20-23, illustrated) which has recently been dated to circa 1622 (see Brown, op. cit., under no. 39, who believed that the Saint Sebastian was painted shortly before the Italian trip and this Ecce Homo shortly after his arrival there). It seems not impossible, therefore, that the Munich Saint Sebastian composition could have been painted in circa 1622.
Sebastian, Saint and Martyr, is said to have been an officer in the Praetorian guard during the reign of Diocletian (3rd Century A.D.). He was a secret Christian and for his support of two like-minded, fellow soldiers, was condemned to be shot to death by arrows; this ordeal he survived, thanks to the ministrations of Saint Irene, only subsequently to be clubbed to death. Van Dyck, perhaps inspired by Wenceslas Cobergher's Saint Sebastian then in Antwerp Cathedral (now Nancy, Musée des Beaux-Arts), does not show the Saint pierced by arrows - as for instance had Rubens in his picture now in Berlin - but being prepared for execution, thus repeating his earlier depictions of the Saint.