Painted in circa 1627-32 during the artist’s second Antwerp period, this imposing and hitherto unpublished canvas showing Saint Sebastian after His Ordeal is an important addition to Van Dyck’s oeuvre.
The picture corresponds closely to Van Dyck’s treatment of the subject in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (fig. 1). That work, which was in the celebrated collection of Everhard Jabach before being sold to King Louis XIV of France in 1671, has until now been considered the prime version. In the 2004 catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work, Horst Vey lists four copies of the Louvre canvas: the picture at Copenhagen; that from the von Wendland collection and sold at Nagel, Stuttgart, 20-21 June 2002, lot 78; that in Le Havre; and the picture in Manchester Art Gallery, which shows a quiver and armour in the lower right corner, in place of the thistle (H. Vey in S. Barnes et. al., Van Dyck, A complete catalogue of the paintings, New Haven and London, 2004, pp. 286-7, no. III.52). Notwithstanding the condition of the Louvre picture, which was restored in 1977, there is a strong argument for considering the present canvas to be the prime version.
This picture, which is signed on the bank, differs chiefly in the presence of an arrow in Sebastian’s thigh, while the feathered arrow in the saint’s torso extends towards the attending angel’s head. A pentimento in the latter arrow suggests the artist changed its position as the composition developed. Interestingly, of the four copies listed by Vey (ibid.), three correspond precisely in this regard by showing the arrow in Sebastian’s thigh while only the Copenhagen picture follows the Louvre canvas. A further copy, showing both arrows but with the saint’s armour in the foreground, was in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne (inv. no. 2295), and later sold in 1944.
The handling of the present work seems unquestionably freer and more sophisticated than the Louvre Saint Sebastian. The artist’s characteristic use of black paint, applied in bold sweeping strokes, to lay-in the figures is clearly evident in the saint’s right leg and raised arm. The masterful treatment of the principal angel, whose head corresponds closely to that of the left cherub in Van Dyck’s Charity (London, National Gallery), and the red drapery of the angel entering the composition from the left edge, are conspicuously finer than their counterparts in the Paris picture. Furthermore, Sebastian’s head, which is shown in a slightly more slumped position, is captured here with startlingly few fluid strokes of dark paint.
In 1627, after nearly six years in Italy, Van Dyck returned to the city of his birth and embarked on the most prolific period of his career, displaying a ‘positively inhumane appetite for work’ (G. Glück, Van Dyck: Des Meisters Gemälde, 2nd ed., Stuttgart and Berlin, 1931, p. XXVII, the translation quoted after Barnes et. al., 2004, p. 240). Despite the effects of the ongoing war between the Spanish Netherlands and the States-General, the demand for Counter-Reformation art was still strong in Flanders; during the following years the artist received a vast number of commissions for religious works, possibly helped by Rubens’s absence from Antwerp between 1628-30. The subject was a favourite of the artist’s and, as Vey notes (op. cit.), Van Dyck’s paintings of Sebastian, the most important of the plague saints as well as the patron saint of the militia guilds, were probably used as votive images as well as altarpieces. Unlike the pictures from his early years in Antwerp in which Sebastian is shown being bound and prepared for martyrdom (Paris, Musée du Louvre; Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen; and Potsdam, Blidergalerie, Schloss Sanssouci), Van Dyck’s treatment of the subject after his return from Italy shows the wounded saint tended by angels following his ordeal. Here Sebastian’s extended arm and bound hand, a gesture that both frames the scene while heightening the saint’s suffering, reveals his exposure to Venetian and Bolognese art and displays his own response to the idiom of contemporary Baroque painting. Whilst there is no direct source for the saint’s pose, it does in part echo the figure of the bound protagonist from Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda, the picture that was in Van Dyck’s collection at the time of his death in 1641 and is now in the Wallace Collection, London.
The well documented influence of Titian, so eloquently revealed in the numerous copies of the Venetian painter’s work in Van Dyck’s Italian sketchbook (London, British Museum), is not only exhibited in the artist’s style from this period but also in his decision to sign his work in capitals, as illustrated here. Although Van Dyck was an irregular signer of his paintings, the artist’s signature does appear on other key works from this period, including the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine in the Royal Collection, the portraits of Peeter Stevens and Anna Wake (dated 1627 and 1628 respectively) in the Mauritshuis, The Hague, and the magnificent full-length of Philippe Le Roy in the Wallace Collection, London.
Although the identities of those working in Van Dyck’s workshop during this period are unknown, the number of variants and contemporary copies of his compositions, painted to meet the demands of his patrons, attest to the importance of his assistants who would frequently be called on to paint the minor passages of his grand-scale commissions. Dr. Christopher Brown, to whom we are grateful for confirming the attribution, has suggested that there is some studio involvement in the landscape of the present work.
Sebastian 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.