Raphael’s Saint Sebastian (c.1502-3)

This painting is by the 19-year old Raphael who spent some of his youth working with Perugino, a specialist himself in paintings of Saint Sebastian. It was clearly created under the older master's influence.1 It demonstrates that Raphael was a visual poet long before he had fully developed his craft. Indeed like many, before and since, he was not a craftsman who became a poet. His earliest works make that very clear. Instead he perfected his craft to convey his poetic wisdom. That may help explain why great craftsmen are so poetic. Beyond a desire for success and fame, shared by the ordinary artisan, these young poets are also driven by an inner compulsion because, with the perfection of their craft, they can express more wisdom more eloquently. Besides spiritual purity requires purity of action which, in art, only mastery of craft can convey. I should note that none of the observations about the painting below has ever been published before but even these can only be a small sampling of what has not been seen.2

Unlike Perugino who always depicted Sebastian nude, pierced by arrows, Raphael showed him dressed and holding one. Arrows, though, as I show elsewhere3, are long and thin like paintbrushes and represent them just as blood does red paint. Thus Perugino's images of Sebastian being executed are, allegorically, a scene of the artist executing his own "painting", the arrow-brushes arriving from outside the frame where the artist was. That is why Sebastian became the iconic image of the artist painting himself as many artists know but few others.4

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Captions for image(s) above:

Raphael, Saint Sebastian (c.1502-3) Oil on wood. Accademia Carrara, Bergamo

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In Raphael's version the saint holds his arrow as though painting the surface we look at. His hand matches how an artist holds a brush (near left), his raised little finger suggesting care and delicacy.

Raphael drew his halos with a double line like the circular gold ones around the saint's sleeve, the opening therefore both "halo" and "eye". His hand extends from this divine "eye" uniting craft with vision. This is in line with Meister Eckhart's saying expressing the potential in all of us, that "the eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God's eye is one eye..."5

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Raphael's Saint Sebastian
R: Modern illustration of hand holding a paintbrush

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Gold chains granted to painters by grateful sovreigns are a potent symbol of the master's prestige, somewhat like a crown of laurels or a secular halo. [See State Honors] Here Raphael placed a chain around Sebastian's neck in such a magical way that its links read like Ss (left, above and below). When seen in a mirror however (literally and in his mind), they form R's (right, above and below.) Raphael's initials were RS for Raphael Sanzio.6

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top and bottom L: Detail and diagram of Raphael's Saint Sebastian, normal view.
Top and bottom R: Detail and diagram of Raphael's Saint Sebastian, inverted as seen in a mirror.

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Indeed the whole composition is a reflection of the artist in front of his canvas, a mental image of a poet's purity and man's inner divinity. If one compares Sebastian's face (top) to Raphael's self-portrait7 (below) there is the same divided chin, a feature Raphael seems to have shared with Perugino. Note too how the saint and artist have similar lips with little indents at the side, arched eyebrows and similar eye-openings. Sebastian, it seems, is "Raphael".

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Raphael's Saint Sebastian, rotated (c.1502-3)
Bottom: Detail of Raphael's Self-portrait (c.1500-2)

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However, Sebastian's wavy hair (top), especially the curls escaping its basic silhouette, are similar to those in Perugino's self-portrait (bottom). Raphael thereby conveys that he is at one with prior artists and with art's traditions.

It is this conscious experience of unity with others and with nature that is both the objective and fulfillment of spiritual life and the basis of a poetic mind.8 Perhaps this knowledge of the self drives young poets to perfect their craft so that they, unlike mere craftsmen, can as masters express the wonders of their mind in matter.










 

Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Raphael's Saint Sebastian (c.1502-3)
Bottom: Perugino, Self-portrait (1497-1500) Fresco. Collegio di Cambio, Perugia

Click image to enlarge.

Notes:

1. Tom Henry in Raphael from Urbino to Rome (London: National Gallery) 2005, p. 118

2. As always, I must add the caveat: "except by artists."

3. See examples under the theme Swords and Other Weapons as Brushes especially those using arrows as in works, already online, by Basquiat, Botticelli, Carlo Crivelli, Cranach the Elder, Dürer, Degas, Delacroix, Hans Baldung Grien, Mantegna, Memling, Michelangelo, Perugino and, not least, Raphael in his Galatea (1512). Basquiat even holds an arrow in his 1982 Self-Portrait.

4. Put "Sebastian" in the Search field above to find all interpretations of the subject currently on the site. There are quite a number.

5. The sermon was delivered two centuries earlier. Meister Eckhart's Sermons, trans. Claud Field (London: H. R. Allenson) 1909, Sermon IV "True Hearing"

6. See how Raphael later turned an angel into an R in his Expulsion of Heliodorus (1511-12) in the Vatican.

7. The drawing is definitely by Raphael and while it is accepted as a self-portrait by the majority of specialists some doubt it. Their doubt is primarily because the artist may look too young for the presumed date. However, that is based on a misconception that likeness was an important objective in a portrait. Yet, as I have demonstrated with hundreds of examples, it seems most unlikely that great masters ever thought that. They alter ages and faces as they see fit, often maintaining the same features in portraits throughout their career regardless of the sitter's identity. Nevertheless there is often one or more foundational "self-portraits" from the beginning of their careers on which they base these numerous variations. This seems to be one of those "self-portraits."

8. The seeming discrepancy between this message of spiritual unity and Raphael's insistent signature (like that of many masters), not just on the work itself but in it too, can perhaps be expained by recognizing that we are both individuals with an individual self and united to all nature through our universal Self. (The latter, incidentally, is always spelt with an upper-case S.)

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 16 Sep 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.