St. Sebastian, whose feast the Church celebrates Jan. 20, is one of three patron saints of Rome, ranking after the apostles Peter and Paul. Those two were elderly Jews when they were martyred in Rome around 79 AD. In contrast, Sebastian was a Gentile soldier from Milan who died for the Faith in 287.
Unaware that he was a Christian, the Emperor Diocletian made Sebastian a captain in the elite Praetorian Guard. The young soldier encouraged two Roman Christians, Mark and Marcellian, to hold fast to their faith in the face of persecution for refusing to sacrifice to Roman gods. Sebastian’s example led dozens of Romans to Christianity.
Outraged, Diocletian ordered Sebastian to be tied to a tree and shot full of arrows. Miraculously, he survived and was nursed back to health by the pious widow, Irene. When he defied Diocletian again, the emperor had him beaten to death and thrown into the Cloaca Maxima, the Roman sewer, hoping that his relics would not be recovered. But Sebastian appeared to St. Lucina in a dream and told her where to find him. He asked for burial in the catacombs, where a great basilica was erected in his honor.
On the site of his martyrdom a little medieval church, San Bastianello, stood for centuries.
An `action’ approach to martyrs
Fast forward 1,300 years to the year 1612. The Church was engaged in a struggle with the Protestants for the hearts and minds of western Europeans, as well as forging a campaign of evangelization in Asia, Africa and America. Many missionaries faced gruesome martyrdoms.
New religious orders were leading the reform of the Church, among them the Oratorians of St. Philip Neri and the Theatines, dedicated to reforming the clergy and combating the teachings of Martin Luther.
A leading Oratorian, Cesare Baronius, launched modern scientific archeology through excavations in Rome, designed to find and document the rich history of the early Christian martyrs there, such as St. Cecilia, St. Sebastian, St. Lawrence and others.
In Catholic art, the reform movement, led by the Carracci family in Bologna, took up the stories of these martyrs with new, authentic historical detail, and often packed a dramatic punch that seemed to anticipate 21st century action films.
In Rome, the Theatine order razed San Bastianello to build a grand new church, Sant’Andrea della Valle. But the saint’s cult was kept alive in a tiny grotto, reached by a spiral staircase leading down from the opulent family chapel of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII. In 1612 Maffeo commissioned the leading artist of Bologna, Ludovico Carracci, to paint “St. Sebastian Thrown into the Cloaca Maxima,” an episode rarely if ever depicted.
Ludovico captured what it must have been like to witness the grisly event centuries before. Instead of the usual style of night painting where an imagined artificial spotlight lights up key figures, Ludovico makes us squint to piece together the jumble of sights into a coherent whole, just as if we were on the spot. In an “Indiana Jones”-style touch, a scorpion lurks in the lower right corner.
“It is worth imagining the painting in the underground chapel, reached by cramped spiral stairs, weakly lit by candles and on the very spot where Sebastian's body was dumped,” writes art historian Charles Dempsey. “In the confined space of the chapel, the life-sized figures would have seemed even more to press forward toward the spectator. Ludovico pushed the action, the dead body, right up to the front plane of the picture, and the soldiers pulling at the shroud to tip the body over the ledge create a sense of momentum so the corpse seems to be rolling out into the chapel.”
Ludovico’s picture never took its intended place in the Sebastian crypt in Rome. The grotto and staircase could not be built, and Cardinal Maffeo took the painting into his private collection, erecting a niche with a far tamer image of Sebastian in the Barberini chapel.
The picture is now in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif., and is featured in “Captured Emotions: Baroque Painting in Bologna, 1575-1725.” The exhibit, gathering pictures from the Dresden Picture Gallery in Germany with others from southern California collections, highlights the central role that Bolognese art played in creating the art of the Catholic Reform.
On the Web: If a trip to Los Angeles is not in your plans between now and May 3, check out the exhibit online at getty.edu. Click on “exhibitions.”-----------------------------Hamerman teaches Art and Catechesis at Christendom’s Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. This article first appeared in the Arlington Catholic herald and is used with permission.
Our nation is at war- a reality not lost upon the men and women of Northern Virginia, home to military bases, civilian support, defense industry and the Pentagon. On the occasion of this remembrance of tragedy, I wish to thank the members of our Armed Services currently serving our country throughout the world. Your commitment to protecting this great nation in so many ways mirrors the selfless sacrifice of our Savior, who died for us. As your brothers and sisters, we cannot fail to recognize your generosity.
-- Bishop Paul Loverde
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