The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian
Oil on canvas
190 x 120 cm
74.8 x 47.2 in
Florence, art market, 1987
Pandolfini, Florence, 28 March 2006, lot 352
Milan, private collection
P. Bigongiari, Tra allegoria e concettismo. La meraviglia interiore e la cultura degli emblemi nel Seicento fiorentino, con alcuni addenda, in “Paradigma”, 8, 1988, pp. 125-138; R. Maffeis, Le ‘pitture nere’ di Francesco Furini, in “Proporzioni”, IV, 2003, p. 136-159; G. Cantelli, Repertorio della Pittura Fiorentina del Seicento – Aggiornamento, I, Pontedera 2009, p. 113; F. Baldassari, La Pittura del Seicento a Firenze. Indice degli artisti e delle loro opere, Torino 2009, pp. 421, 435; S. Bellesi, Catalogo dei pittori fiorentini del ‘600 e del ‘700. Biografie e opere, vol. I, Firenze 2009, p. 28, tav. XXIV, p. 154; G. Cantelli, Francesco Furini e i furiniani, Pontedera 2010, p. 139, n. 73; F. Baldassari, Seicento Fiorentino. Sacred and Profane Allegories, Firenze 2012, p. 77.
Against the gloomy sky of the background, a brutal figure wearing a red cape holds the head of a chained man, in preparation of striking him. The recumbent man, on a marble pedestal decorated with low reliefs, languidly accepts his fate and abandons himself to flagellation. In the foreground, next to some draperies, it is possible to see a bow and a quiver with arrows. These details identify the scene with the martyrdom of St. Sebastian.
The present painting represents the final episode of the Saint’s passion, as narrated in the Passio Sancti Sebastiani. After having been shot at with arrows by his fellow soldiers (the episode most commonly represented), St. Sebastian was found still alive by St. Irene and nursed by her. Once he recovered, instead of running away, he faced the emperors Massimiano and Diocleziano whilst ignoring the warnings of other Christians. He was thus condemned to death by flagellation in the Palatine hippodrome.
The present canvas appeared for the first time on the Florentine art market in 1987 (and later on the 28th of March 2006, at a Pandolfini auction, lot 352). The following year (1988) it was correctly attributed to Francesco Furini by Piero Bigongiari (on Giuseppe Cantelli’s suggestion). Bigongiari generically referred to the painting as Martyrdom of a Saint, whilst Rodolfo Maffeis in 2008 and Francesca Baldassari in 2009 identified the Saint with St. Placidus. It was Giuseppe Cantelli in 2010 who finally recognised the Saint as St. Sebastian, due to the presence in the foreground of the bow, quiver and arrows. Cantelli also suggested the painting to be dated between 1635 and 1638, given the strong stylistic resemblance to both the slightly earlier Hylas and the Nymphs and the Andromeda in the Hermitage Museum. Furthermore, Cantelli pointed out that Furini produced several versions of St. Sebastian, such as the drogatissimo 1642 canvas commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici (Schloss Schleissheim, Staatsgalerie, fig. 1), to be dated a few years after the present one, and as the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian in Munich.
Francesco Furini’s representations of St. Sebastian are extremely dramatic and the present work is a remarkable addition to the artist’s oeuvre. In it, the Saint’s body is characterised by an ambiguous, almost feminine sensuality and appears voluptuously abandoned to his executioner, with the homoerotic allusions so frequent in Furini’s work. Such erotic implication is further enhanced when St. Sebastian’s pose is compared to the one of the nymph in Agostino Carracci’s etching Satyr with pendulum, from the Lascivie series. The sensuality of the painting must have met the favour of the contemporary public to the point that Furini replicated the subject several times, also in the variation in which the Saint is nursed by St. Irene (e.g. the canvas in the Museée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, fig.2).
The present work possesses the stylistic elements typical of Furini’s oeuvre. Other than with the aforementioned examples, the St. Sebastian shares his features with the Judith in Prague and with the Repentant Magdalene in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna (fig. 3); whilst the executioner has the same fierce facial expression of the servant woman in Judith and Holofernes in a Florentine private collection (fig.4). Finally, the handling of colour is the same of The Archangel Michael in the Badia Fiorentina, Florence, which is also dated 1635.
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