In his illustrious career, El Greco painted Saint Sebastian three times. The last of his three portraits from 1610 to 1614 found its way into the Prado Museum - but in two parts. Why?

Report by Karla Darocas, Hons. B. A. ( for

In 1959 the upper half was donated by the Countess of Mora y Aragón and in 1987 the legs were found, which perfectly match the upper body of Saint Sebastian. The painting is in oil on canvas, measures approx. 201.5 x 111.5 cm, is trimmed and missing in some places and was put together in one piece.

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

Today we can admire this Saint Sebastian tied to a tree, impaled by arrows coming from different directions, with an expression of approval and tenderness. He looks up to God and accepts his martyrdom.

Behind him we see a stormy sky threatening the city of Toledo. Anyone who has ever been to Toledo can relate to these turbulent cloud formations.

Unsurprisingly, Saint Sebastian was never in Toledo, but that did not stop El Greco from including his beloved adopted city in the painting. Saint Sebastian stands on a flat surface as if on a daring precipice and behind him we see the city in the background, depicted in shades of green and blue-grey, creating a dramatic, if not ghostly, atmosphere.

The figure of the saint is very elongated, as was typical of El Greco's spirited and otherworldly figures in his later years. The strong light source illuminates the saint with such force that the colour of his skin almost disappears and becomes white, but still casts shadows over his entire body.

Undoubtedly, El Greco wanted his paintings to represent the spirituality of the Counter-Reformation, a Catholic revival that began as a reaction to the Protestant Reformation and started with the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and ended with the end of the Thirty Years' War (1648).

While most of El Greco's works correspond to the piety of the new era, Saint Sebastian is an act that has always been the subject of critical speculation on the part of Catholics and could therefore never be considered beautiful. Therefore, here we find a ghostly figure looking up to heaven and accepting his fate.

Furthermore, we know that Sebastian was a soldier of the Roman army and of the Emperor Diocletian. He was born in Narbonne (France) in 256, but received his education in Milan. He adhered to military discipline but did not participate in pagan sacrifices because he considered them idolatry. As a Christian, he preached among his comrades and visited and encouraged other Christians who were imprisoned for their faith.

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

Enraged, Maximian condemned him to death. The emperor's soldiers took Sebastian to the stadium, stripped him, tied him to a tree stump, impaled him with a rain of arrows and left him for dead. But his friends came and saw that he was still alive. They took him to the house of a Christian Roman noblewoman called Irene, Castulo's wife, who hid him and healed his wounds until he was well again.

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

He appeared before a stunned emperor, who thought him dead, and sharply criticised him for his persecution of Christians. Maximian had him beaten to death and soldiers threw his body into a swamp.

The Christians searched for him and buried him in the Via Appia, a famous catacomb called San Sebastian. He died in 288.

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