THE MYSTERY OF EL GRECO'S PAINTING OF SAINT SEBASTIAN


In his illustrious career, El Greco painted Saint Sebastian three times. The last of his three portrayals dated between 1610 and 1614 found its way to the Prado Museum - but in two parts.

Report by Karla Darocas, Hons. B. A. (KarlaDarocas.com)
Exclusive for SpainLifestyle.com

In 1959, the top half was donated by the countess of Mora y Aragón and in 1987 the legs were found that fit the upper part of Saint Sebastian's body perfectly. Painted in oil on canvas, approximately 201.5 x 111, 5 cm, trimmed and missing some areas, it was assembled in one piece.

The time and circumstances in which the canvas was cut are unknown but would appear that this Saint Sebastian was cut in two because of an inheritance because the division of the painting is interesting. It seems that one of the parties received the upper part and the other received the lower section, thus destroying a painting of great quality.

Today, we can marvel at this Saint Sebastian tied to a tree, impaled by arrows that come from different directions with an expression of consent and tenderness. He looks up to God, accepting his martyrdom.

Behind him, we see stormy skies that threaten the city of Toledo. Anyone who has spent any time in Toledo will indeed relate to those turbulent cloud formations.

Not surprisingly, Saint Sebastian was never in Toledo, but that did not stop El Greco from incorporating his beloved adopted home into the painting. Saint Sebastian is placed in a shallow space of ground as if on a daring precipice and behind him we contemplate the town in the background, depicted in green and bluey grey tones, creating a dramatic if not ghostly atmosphere.

The saint's figure is very elongated, as was typical of El Greco's spirited and other worldly figures in his later years. The powerful source of light illuminates the saint with such force that the skin colour almost disappears, turning white, yet casting shadows all over his body.

Undoubtedly, El Greco's aim was to use his images to show the spirituality of Counter-Reformation, a Catholic resurgence initiated in response to the Protestant Reformation, beginning with the Council of Trent (1545–1563) and ending at the close of the Thirty Years' War (1648).

While most of El Greco's works conform to the piety of the new era, Saint Sebastian is a nude, which was always subject to critical speculation by the Catholics and hence could never be deemed as beautiful in any way. Hence, we find a ghostly figure who looks up to heaven and excepts his fate.

Aside, we know that Sebastian was a soldier of the Roman army and the Emperor Diocletian. He was born in Narbonne (France) in the year 256 , but was educated in Milan . He complied with military discipline, but did not participate in pagan sacrifices because he considered them idolatry. As a Christian, he preached among his companions, visiting and encouraging other Christians imprisoned because of their religion.

He was discovered and denounced to Emperor Maximian (friend of Diocletian), who forced him to choose between being a soldier or following Jesus Christ . Sebastian chose to follow Christ.

Enraged, he condemned him to die. The Emperor's soldiers took him to the stadium, undressed him, tied him to a tree stump and impaled him with a shower of arrows and left him for dead. However, his friends came and, seeing him still alive, took him to the house of a Roman Christian noble named Irene, wife of Castulo, who kept him hidden and healed his wounds, until he was restored.

His friends advised him to leave Rome, but Sebastian flatly refused.

He appeared before a disconcerted emperor, as he thought he was dead, and strongly criticized his conduct for persecuting Christians. Maximian had him clubbed to death and soldiers tossed his body into a quagmire.

The Christians picked him out and buried him in the Via Appia, a famous catacomb that bears the name of San Sebastian. He died in the year 288.

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