Saint Sebastian by El Greco – I – (Palencia)
Location: Palencia, Museum of the Cathedral.
Painted: 1577 ca.
Medium: Oil on canvas.
Dimensions: 191 x 152 cm.
Signed: DOMÉNIKOS THEOTOKÓPOULOS EPOIEI (In Greek alphabet capitals)
According to the Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine, Sebastian was a soldier of the late third-century Roman Praetorian Guard. Although the emperor Diocletian was persecuting christians, Sebastian encouraged his companions to die rather than apostatize. He himself was murdered when he was asked to renounce his faith.
Sebastian was bound naked to a tree and shot with arrows. Because of that way in which he was executed, his martyrdom offered artists the opportunity to portray the male nude in religious art and to experiment with the aesthetic possibilities of that subject.
Several paintings of that subject were listed in the Inventories which were made after the death of Doménikos: one small and one large San Sebastian are mentioned in the Inventory-I, while in the Inventory-II two small and two large pictures of that theme were listed, which is rather surprising, taking into account that only three pictures on that subject remain nowadays.
That canvas has only been slightly restored and never repainted, and it has always remained in the Cathedral of Palencia –except for temporary exhibitions-. Thus, it is in an excellent state of conservation, and is a very important testimony of the way of El Greco´s paintig technique.
There are several theories about its provenance. Certainly, it is not generally accepted who were its commissioner and its donor to the Palencia Cathedral :
** Probably, the commissioner was Luis de Castilla, illegitimate son of Diego de Castilla, dean of Toledo Cathedral. Before becoming dean in Toledo in 1551, Diego de Castilla had been a priest, canon and archdeacon in Palencia Cathedral.
Luis de Castilla certainly met Doménikos in Rome and presumably he was instrumental in the move of that painter to Spain. Luis was responsible for the first great commission of El Greco in Toledo -the altarpieces in Santo Domingo el Antiguo-, since he recommended that painter to his father. Possibly, Luis de Castilla was the donor of that painting to the Palencia Cathedral, because he was grateful for the efforts of that Institution in order to obtain his dispensation “ob defectu natalium“, as he was an illegitimate son.
** On the other hand, Jesús San Martin Payo has suggested Bishop Zapata de Cardenas or his protégé, Alonso de Cordoba, as possible donors of that canvas. Mr. Martin Payo based that assumption on his study of a sixteenth century manuscript by Dr. Ascencio Garcia on the history of the diocese of Palencia. He thinks that that St. Sebastian was formerly owned by Don Juan Alonso de Córdoba the “right arm of the bishop don Juan Ramírez Zapata de Cárdenas, patron of the San Jerónimo chapel”. Since Juan Ramírez was Bishop of the Palencia diocese from 1570 until his death in 1577, this theory would indicate that that Saint Sebastian would even antecede “El Expolio” in the Cathedral of Toledo.
** However, in the inventories of the Palencia Cathedral, that picture is later mentioned in the Chapel of San Jerómimo, belonging to the Reinoso family, which has suggested the possibility that Francisco de Reinoso, secretary to Pope Pius V, commissioned that canvas.
Even though the first theory is the most plausible, the matter of the identification of the commissioner and the donor remains currently conjectural.
That painting is the first life-size male nude depicted by El Greco, and seems to derive from two main sources of his stage in Rome: Michelangelo and the sculpture of Laocoön in the Vatican.
Certainly, the influence of Michelangelo is obvious throughout the first period of Doménikos in Spain. Probably, his statement that Michelangelo did not know how to paint simply means that El Greco thought that color was more important than design when it comes to painting.
Certainly, the pose of of Sebastian seems to be inspired either by the Adam in the Sistine Chapel, by the Punishment of Haman – also in the Sistine Chapel – , or by the Sculpture of the Victory in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
On the other hand, that Saint Sebastian seems to derive from the sculpture of Laocoön in the Vatican. Certainly, that classical statue haunted El Greco as much as Michelangelo –El Greco painted his own Laocoön in his later stage-. Although the pose is reversed and the left leg is bent back in a kneeling position, in other aspects it is very similar to that sculpture.
Presumably, Doménikos carefully studied that classical statue in Rome, as the right foot of the martyr has his toes pressing hard against the ground, which seems to indicate a close study of the Laocoön itself, and not merely a study of one reduction or a print of it. Even the handsome face of the young Sebastian reminds of the middle-aged bearded Laocoön.
On the other hand, his signature is on the stone under the left knee of the Saint, who hangs from bonds which tie his elbows to a fig-tree. Both characteristics remind of the treatment of that subject by Titian in the Averoldi Altarpiece.
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That canvas, painted in Italian Manieristic style, shows Sebastian crouched in a kneeling posture, and bound to a fig-tree by a rope that passes around his right and especially around his raised left arm.
The signature of El Greco is on the stone under the left knee of Sebastian. It is written in wonderful Greek alphabet capitals, in a splendid state of conservation. As usual in El Greco, that canvas is not dated, but it may be presumed that 1577 is the date ante quem.
Sebastian is stuck on his left side with only one arrow. El Greco was an artist hardly prone to morbid or bloody details; therefore it is not strange that there are more arrows stuck in the tree than in the body of the martyr, and that almost no blood oozes from his wound.
His eyes are cast heavenward, and he seems to be either resigned to his death, in communion with God, or perhaps enjoying his martyrdom. His nude body is graceful and naturalistic, slightly elongated, solidly fleshy, and has none of the exaggeration in contrasting highlights or pigmentation for which El Greco would later be known.
In the background, a rather tempestuous cloud is depicted with swift brushstrokes. The trees in that canvas are the most naturalistic ever painted by Doménikos in Spain and it can be clearly seen that a fig-tree is the specific kind of tree on which Sebastian is bound.
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Frati, Tiziana; La Obra pictórica completa de El Greco; Editorial Noguer-Rizzoli; Milán-1969.
Wethey, Harold E.; El Greco y su Escuela; Ediciones Guadarrama; Madrid-1967.
Álvarez Lopera, José; El Greco, la Obra esencial; Editorial Sílex; Madrid-2014.
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