Saint Sebastian, ca. 1500
60 1/4 x 18 3/8 x 14 1/8 in. (153 x 46.8 x 35 cm)
R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund and Mrs. F. F. Prentiss Fund, 1961
Polychromed wood statues were extremely common in the churches of Renaissance Italy, and the Oberlin Saint Sebastian is a striking example of the type produced around 1500 in Umbria. The nearly life-size work represents one of the most venerated plague saints in premodern Italy.
Painted sculptures in wood, wax, and terra cotta were a standard component of ecclesiastical decoration during the Renaissance; they could be found in virtually every church in Italy. 1 These materials were chosen not only because they were cheaper than marble and bronze, and thus more humble and more appropriate for religious settings, but also because their malleability permitted the artist to make highly naturalistic and affective works.
To enhance the lifelike appearance of this image of Saint Sebastian, the sculpture is pigmented in a natural fashion: the skin is flesh-toned, the hair brown, and the veins are built up in rope and gesso and then painted greenish-blue. Thirteen holes, now plugged, on the throat, chest, groin, and limbs reveal that the Oberlin sculpture was originally pierced with arrows; dripping with painted blood, the illusionistic power of the work was once even greater than is now apparent. The statue also once had a halo, as indicated by a hole on the top of its head, and there is evidence of a stump or column to which the figure was fictively bound (and structurally supported) at the wrists. 2
The original location and date of the present sculpture are undocumented. On the basis of style, however, Stechow and Bongiorno both argue that the work is of Umbrian origin, and probably dates from around 1500. 3 This suggestion is based on comparison with three similar wood sculptures of Saint Sebastian, all in Umbria: one is in the Convent of San Francesco in Stroncone (this statue includes arrows and a tree trunk); a second is in the Galleria Nazionale in Perugia; and the third is in the Oratorio della Morte in Cascia (this statue includes both a halo and arrows). 4 While these works are clearly by different sculptors, they share common stylistic traits and indicate the artistic context in which the Oberlin statue was created.
On the other hand, a date after 1500 may be indicated by the similarity of the features of the saint's head with those found in a group of sculptures made in Florence in the early sixteenth century in the circle of the young Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570) (e.g., the terra-cotta statuette of Saint John the Baptist, in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence ); the gaze and open mouth of the Oberlin sculpture especially recall features of this group. 5
Both Lisner and Stechow have seen German influence in the stylized carving of the curls of the hair. 6 Such stylized curls, however, are also found in Sienese wood sculpture of the period.
Because of his many wounds from arrows, Saint Sebastian's plight was associated with that of plague victims who typically suffered horrible pustulating blisters all over their skin. Saint Sebastian's divine protection against the scourge was widely sought; only Saint Roch was of comparable importance as a plague saint. Plagues were endemic in premodern Italy. In 1348 the Black Death killed nearly half of the Italian population, and thereafter bubonic, smallpox, and other plagues attacked the populace roughly every ten years and particularly virulent outbreaks occurred about once every thirty years.
Private collection, Berlin
With Kurt Rossacher, Salzburg, from whom purchased in 1961
Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Painting and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, pp. 193-95, fig. 240.
Bongiorno, Laurine Mack. "An Umbrian Statue of St. Sebastian." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 28, no. 3 (Spring 1971), pp. 141-52.
Buck, Richard. "The Making of a Saint." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 28, no. 3 (Spring 1971), pp. 153-62.
Following the typical method of construction for Italian Renaissance wood sculpture, the Oberlin Saint Sebastian is assembled from multiple pieces of separately carved wood held together with glue, nails, and dowels. The arms were carved separately and attached, the head and hair were made separately, and the torso as well is composed of several sections. To reduce cracking and warping of the wood, the head and torso are hollow. The joins between the pieces of wood are covered in gessoed linen canvas, another typical feature of Italian wood sculpture. Several different types of wood were used in the Oberlin sculpture. Their identity has not been established on the basis of scientific testing, but visual examination has indicated the presence of poplar and spruce. The figure was extensively polychromed with tempera-based paints over a gesso ground and the veins on the legs and arms were built up in gesso and rope.
The sculpture is missing several pieces: originally, arrows were attached to the wounds, there was a halo affixed to the top of the head, and a tree stump or column stood behind the figure. In addition, there is a large loss to the base in front, and the fourth toe of the left foot is missing. The wood has been damaged by cracking and worming, and there are losses to the polychromy. 7
1. On polychromed statues, see Scultura dipinta (exh. cat., Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, 1987).
2. See Richard Buck, "The Making of a Saint," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 28, no. 3 (Spring 1971), pp. 153-62.
3. Wolfgang Stechow, Catalogue of European and American Painting and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College (Oberlin, 1967), p. 194; and Laurine Mack Bongiorno, "An Umbrian Statue of St. Sebastian," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 28, no. 3 (Spring 1971), pp. 141-52.
4. For illustrations of these works and stylistic comparisons, see Laurine Mack Bongiorno, "An Umbrian Statue of St. Sebastian," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 28, no. 3 (Spring 1971), pp. 141-52.
5. Reproduced in Bruce Boucher, The Sculpture of Jacopo Sansovino (New Haven and London, 1991), pp. 313-14, fig. 11.
6. Margarit Lisner, "Deutsche Holzkruzifixe des 15. Jahrhunderts in Italien," Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 9 (1960), pp. 196-97; and Wolfgang Stechow, Catalogue of European and American Painting and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College (Oberlin, 1967), p. 194.
7. For further details on the construction and condition of this work, see condition report by Richard S. Buck, dated 31 August 1961 (ICA 64/61); and idem, "The Making of a Saint," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 28, no. 3 (Spring 1971), pp. 153-62.