The painting depicts Saint Sebastian, a young Christian nobleman who joined the Roman army in the year 283. Being the favorite of the ruling Emperor Diocletian, he served as a captain in Diocletian’s elite regimen, the Praetorian Guard. Sebastian secretly was a Christian, which was unsuited for a member of the court of the anti Christian Emperor in the 3rd century. During his time in the army Sebastian surreptitiously employed his high position to aid fellow Christians who were taken captive by the regimen. When two of Sebastian’s Christian friends were tortured he decided to manifest his religious believes. Diocletian had no sympathy and sentenced Sebastian to death. Stripped and tied to a tree, his fellow officer archers shot arrow after and arrow into him. He survived however and was nursed back to health. Upon full recovery Sebastian confronted Diocletian and criticized him for his cruelty to both him and his fellow Christians.
Shocked to see Sebastian alive and well, Diocletian sentenced Sebastian to death for a second time and this time the sentence was carried out. Sebastian was beaten to death with heavy clubs and his body was thrown into one of the city’s sewers. After Sebastian’s death miracles occurred alongside his grave, permanently establishing his status as a Saint.
Saint Sebastian is worshiped as the defender of the Christian faith. As the arrow traditionally is the symbol of the plague, he was worshiped in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as a patron against the plague. Today he is still invoked by fever and sores. Furthermore, Saint Sebastian was also the patron of archers and the crusaders. The latter carried the Jerusalem Cross as an arm: a cross with four equal arms and in between four smaller crosses. This cross is often depicted alongside Saint Sebastian.
In this painting the story of Sebastian is displayed in different stages. We see Sebastian tied to a tree, his body pierced by arrows: the custom representation from the 15th century on. Behind him Diocletian, with a turban on his head as a sign of his pagan faith, raises his arm, commanding the officer archer with the bow in his hand to carry out Sebastian’s death sentence. Two officers, seen from behind, have turned their back on Sebastian, showing him their disapproval.
Throughout the scene symbols can be found of a particular Christian nature. The Angel in the sky, foretelling Sebastian’s erelong status of Saint as he would survive this ordeal, is holding a palm-branch and a laurel wreath. These common attributes of Sebastian are both symbols of martyrdom, but separately they symbolize respectively the victory of Christians over death and the divine and earthly sovereignty of the Saint. On the right a firmly rooted oak tree overlooks the scene. Because of its solidity and durability the oak tree has become the emblem of the sustaining power of faith and the endurance of Christians in times of tribulation and adversity. In this context the oak tree also symbolizes the unwavering and imperishable faith of the Saint. Behind the oak tree a laurel bush encourages to cogitate eternity: the laurel never loses its bright shade of green, a reminder of the eternal status of Sainthood. On the left a barren tree trunk reaches up to the sky. The symbolic meaning of this arid tree is twofold. In
combination with the oak tree its presence most likely refers to a passage of the Old Testament. It states: “[…] as a terebinth tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof” (Isaiah 6:13).
This biblical passage narrates about the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar capturing Jerusalem in 587 BC. Upon deportation from Judea to Babylon many prominent Jewish citizens along with a sizable portion of the population would not survive the journey. Although Israel and the Jews suffered persecutions and trials they survived nonetheless, and in doing so they preserved the seed of Abraham. In the cited passage the Jews are compared with the terebinth tree. Although the terebinth is an evergreen, it loses its leaves in very severe and inclement weather, making it appear as though it were dead. But even if the tree decays and falls, still the life of the tree would remain in the root: “the holy seed shall be the substance thereof”. It will send up new shoots, and thus a new tree will be produced. In the context of Saint Sebastian this passage in the Old Testament reminds the faithful that although the Saint, like the people of Israel, went trough great tribulation and would eventually ‘cast his leaves’ in death, he too would never really seize to exist. As Saint he lives eternally and so will all faithful Christians who have an unwavering faith. The second symbolic significance of the barren terebinth tree is of a more visual nature: the tree trunk reaches up to the sky, acting as a gateway to heaven. Because of its deep and extensive root system, the terebinth comes of great age and grows very large in size, which is why in the times of the Old Testament it functioned as well-known landmarks. Like the terebinth in this painting, Saint Sebastian is an intermediary between Heaven and Earth, connecting the terrestrial world with the higher realms.
Finally, Saint Sebastian raises his eyes to the heavens in devotion. His facial expression shows no signs of pain. Like some of the symbols in this painting mentioned above, this representation of suffering symbolizes the triumph of true faith.
Based on the shape of the figures, the drapery and applied colour scheme the painting can be dated around 1610-1630, as part of the artistry from the Northern region of the Netherlands. Although the artist is unknown, a remarkable feature of the painting, the singular diamond shape, informs us about its possible function. The lozenge or diamond format was the common shape of so-called blazons: painted armorial shields, as well as painted epitaphs, which hung on the piers in Dutch churches (see fig. 1 and 1a). Although its exact origin is unknown, the shape and subject matter reveal that the painting is most likely a decorative piece made for the Civic Gard of a Dutch town, more precisely for the Arquebusiers (‘Kloveniers’) guild. Their patron Saint was Saint Sebastian. Since the Middle Ages every guild owned a little chapel for devotion and collectively held daily prayers or funeral memorials. To mark their territory the guild placed a blazon with their patron saint on a church pier near the private chapel. See for examples of comparable blazons with a similar function fig. 2 and 3. It could however also have been ordered by the guild for display in their guild Hall at the Saint Sebastian Doelen, which functioned as their headquarters.
One of the most well known examples of the lozenge shape format is Dead Adonis of 1609 (fig. 2) by the Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius (Bracht 1558 – Haarlem 1617), at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It shows Adonis’ body seen from his feet up, in foreshortened perspective, and it went down in history as a clear example of an artist’s conscious choice of an unusual format for best depicting the subject matter. Goltzius and his townsman and contemporary Cornelis van Haarlem (Haarlem 1562 – Haarlem 1638) were one of a very few painters to adopt the lozenge shape, derived from the original church blazons, for artistic reasons. The present painting however bears no resemblance in both style and technique with the former.
For research on this painting Suzanne Laemers, curator of fifteenth and sixteenth century Netherlandish painting in the RKD (Netherlands Institute for Art History) in The Hague, has been consulted.
– Fam. Behr, to their neighbours and carers the family Boot in 1945, Amsterdam;
– to the present owner Mr Van der Schaaf, who was the neighbour of the Boot family in Haarlem in 1995.
– Koen Goudriaan, Gilden in Gouda, Stedelijke Musea Gouda 1996.
– D. Bolten (et al.), Het Blazoen (exhibition catalogue), Museum Het Prinsenhof, Delft 1954.
– Otto Hirschmann, Hendrick Goltzius als Maler 1600-1617, Den Haag 1916.
– Judikje Kiers, ‘Passen en meten’, De Rijksmuseum Kunstkrant 20 (1994) 1, pp. 2-5.
– Wouter Kloek, Alleen kijken naar de omtrekvorm van schilderijen, Amsterdam 1978.
– Lawrence W. Nichols, “Job in distress’, a newly discovered painting by Hendrick Goltzius’, Simiolus 13 (1983), pp. 182-188.
– Murk Salverda, Lucia Impelluso, De natuur en haar symbolen, Gent 2003, pp. 62, 63.