The work ?Saint Sebastian? was done by a Flemish artist named Abraham Janssens Van Nuysen (1575-1632) in 1609 in the Spanish Netherlands. On December 14 I visited the European gallery in Phoenix Art Museum, where this work currently exists. The work is a 70 by 100 cm oil on oak panel painting and has a dark brown wooden frame. This nearly-naked young man, being fastened to a tree, would have been readily recognizable to a seventeenth century audience. The clues to his identity are the quiver of arrows resting on the ground and the bow leading on the column. He is Saint Sebastian. According to legend, Sebastian was a Christian, forced to hide his beliefs during the Intolerant reign of Diocletian, the third century AD Roman emperor. When Sebastian?s two Christian friends were exposed and condemned to death, Sebastian came forward to give them support. Sebastian was ordered to be shot with arrows, which are prominently displayed in the painting.
The arrows did not kill him, however, left for dead by his executioners. Sebastian is depicted before his execution, a departure from the more typical and gruesome scene of the Saint pierced with arrows. The focus here is on the victim?s psychological anguish. Sebastian?s expression betrays his fear for what is to transpire. The strength of his body, dramatically lit from above, seems woefully inadequate to resisting the course of events. Janssen?s painting in this gallery, exemplifies efforts by the Catholic church during the seventeenth century Baroque period to emphasize the importance of steadfast allegiance to its dogma through more ?human? and emotional artistic interpretations. These efforts of the Counter-Reformation affected both the content and appearance of much seventeenth century art.
There are many characteristics that help us to recognize this work as a Northern Baroque work. First of all, a sharp outline from linear approach catches our eye and that is why the brush works are hidden. The use of spotlighting on the figure of Saint Sebastian and the broad gesture of his arm are two elements of drama that are used in this work. Having a dark and black sky shows the technique of tenebrism, which always follows the use of spotlighting. Patience and fear are seen on Sebastian?s face, which show the use of emotion in this work. Janssens Van Nuysen has painted the column, feathers on the arrows, and the red cloth covering the arrows in three different textures. The direction of the arrows leading to Saint Sebastian shows the idea of using diagonal lines and suggests movement in the work. The ends of the arrows that are beautifully decorated are the detailed part of the painting, and the stone column with a head of an eagle on it is the symbol of the ancient Roman era in which this event supposedly took place. A small tree faraway in the distance shows the idea of an atmospheric perspective system. Except of Sebastian?s face and body which are quite bright and white, the rest of the work is done by using warm colors. A sharp and strong outline is used in drawing Sebastian?s body. All these formal elements convey the work?s religious theme, Saint Sebastian?s dignity.
What interested me a lot about this religious Northern Baroque work was its effective use of spotlighting on the figure of Sebastian. In my opinion, this painting is very strong and effective in terms of its religious meanings. It is strong enough to motivate a Christian?s feelings and at the same time it supports the Counter Catholic Reformation. The bright and shiny sun in the middle of the dark sky suggests hope in life for all Christians. The innocent and patiently look on Saint Sebastian?s face definitely suggests what Christians should imitate. I was expecting this Baroque work to be a mid shot but nothing in the painting shows that Saint Sebastian is being executed. It can be said that Janssens Van Nuysen has not followed the traditional depiction of Saint Sebastian with arrows in his body; so this piece include aspects of styles of the past (Renaissance). The second issue that does not make sense is the short single column depicted in the landscape..