THE MARTYRDOM OF ST. SEBASTIAN



 
 
 

by Dr. Jean-Pierre Lafouge
Associate Professor of French
Marquette University
Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures
 
sebastian
 
 
 

François Guillaume Ménageot, French (1744-1816)
The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian
Oil on canvas, 53 x 39 in., museum purchase, 2000.6
 
 

François Guillaume Ménageot was born in London in 1744 and died in Paris in 1816. He was a pupil of François Boucher (1703-1770), a well-known Rococo painter. Ménageot was an academician, director of the French Academy in Rome, a member of the Institute, and a winner of the Rome Prize. He drew most of his subject matter from French history and religious themes.

The painting by Ménageot that is now in the Haggerty Museum's permanent collection represents the artist's interpretation of Saint Sebastian. There is much to say about the history, the legend, and the fate of Saint Sebastian in Christian history. Sebastian was born into a wealthy Roman family. He grew up to be an officer of the Imperial Roman Army and captain of the guard. He was also a close friend and favorite of Emperor Diocletian (284-305), the Roman ruler who hated and, subsequently, persecuted Christians. It is not clear when Sebastian became a Christian but after Diocletian began his persecution, Sebastian decided to publicly declare his conversion to Christianity. Eventually, Diocletian asked Sebastian to deny his faith. Sebastian refused and was taken outside the city, tied to a tree, shot with arrows, and left for dead. Amazingly, he survived and went back to Diocletian to reproach him for his acts and exhort him to convert to Christianity. Consequently, the emperor had Sebastian beaten to death. This act precipitated Sebastian's identity as a Christian martyr and subsequent sainthood. [Information summarised from Catherine Fournier, Domestic-Church.com]

Sebastian serves as the protector from plague and the patron saint of archers, athletes, and soldiers. Celebrated answers to prayers for his protection against the plague are documented on the occasion of outbreaks in Rome in 680, Milan in 1575, and Lisbon in 1599. Sebastian is often represented as a naked youth wearing a crown who is tied to a tree and shot with arrows.

Sebastian has served as the subject for many painters. Why? The reasons vary depending on the era. To give a very general outline, we could say the following: Early on, the depiction of saintly figures in painting largely served as a means for expressing piety directed to a particular saint who had fulfilled prayers or to acknowledge acts of miracles---there are many churches, sanctuaries, and chapels either dedicated to, or housing sculptures and/or paintings of, Saint Sebastian. Prior to the Renaissance, importance was given to content (the symbolic meaning) rather than form (the naked body). During the Renaissance and thereafter, artistic interests became more and more linked to technique and spirit ("art for art's sake"). Saint Sebastian was, aside from Christ on the Cross, the only legitimate opportunity for a painter living in a Christian society to exercise his or her skill in painting a male nude.

Ménageot, like many others before him, did not want to miss this opportunity. The result is this magnificent work that the Haggerty Museum of Art has acquired. This painting is largely characterized by the perfection with which the anatomy and flesh of the body (colors and shapes) are painted. The painting clearly juxtaposes the mysticism of the time (expressed by the look and gesture of the tortured and twisted head) to the realism of the body---full of vitality, youth, and sensual beauty. The nearly life-size scale of the painting further enhances the potency of this comparison. The naked flesh and detailed muscularity and body structure are what strikes the viewer first and foremost. Sebastian is not presented as the courageous soldier braving the emperor---there are no arrows, no traces of blood or wounds to disfigure his body. On the contrary, this Saint Sebastian shows that the human body can be represented as simultaneously tortured and beautiful. It seems however, that Ménageot, unlike many other artists of the time, did not want to be overly explicit in his representation of the saint. His Sebastian, consequently, remains rather ambiguous---both androgynous and angelic.

Perhaps this asexual image reflects the tastes or conventions of the time. But one can't help to notice the disparity between the head and the rest of the body. This discrepancy expresses the main problem that Christianity inherited from the Renaissance and is still present today---the difficulty (or even the impossibility) to fully integrate the mind and body as a spiritual whole. Here the tortured mind vividly contrasts with the freshness and beauty of the human body. Although it may not be immediately apparent, we could perhaps conclude that the face of Saint Sebastian serves as as a means for expressing the suffering of martyrdom and the beseeching of God's help while the body represents a sense of victory at the miracle of that aid.

 

 



Stand: 22. Juni 2005