Antonio Campi’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastian

In this large painting of St. Sebastian by the little-known artist, Antonio Campi (1523-1587), the archer’s expression seems so sympathetic towards his victim and his features so specifically individual that he is as likely to become the focus of our attention as the saint. This should lead us to recognize that the archer is a self-representation of the “artist” in the act of “painting” the saint with his arrows. 

Indeed the archer's position to the side looking up at the saint’s figure closely approximates how the artist would have looked up at his canvas while painting it. Yet the saint as “the archer’s painting” is also a self-representation because every painter paints himself. To confirm that aspect of the work’s meaning the artist has placed his inscription on the stone that the saint stands on. “I am the saint”, it implies. The artist has further indicated the saint's status as “a work of art” by focussing our attention on the depiction of his nude torso. Spot-lit and essentially monochromatic, it resembles a sculpture and thus a work of art.

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Antonio Campi's Martyrdom of St. Sebastian

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The saint, moreover, holds his arrow together with a small branch, a sucker, emerging from the large tree behind him. The sucker has begun to look like a tree in its own right and thus symbolizes the artist/executioner’s fertility as an off-shoot and derivative of the great masters (the large tree) that came before him. The saint “as a statue” stands in front of that tree with green drapery, the color of fertility, wrapped around him and with the section covering his groin emerging from where the artist/executioner holds the tree almost as if the drapery is just another “large leaf” of that tree.

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 Detail of St Sebastian

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The rest of the archer’s equipment, quiver and bow, lie like the artist's brush and palette in the lower right-hand corner where artists indicate their authorship. Above them, in the distance, is a white horse with a figure trying to restrain it. The horse (cavallo in Italian) does not appear in the story of St. Sebastian but may be a visual pun on cavaletto, the Italian for easel. Puns on cavaletto - and similar variations in other languages - have been commonly used by great masters though none has ever, to my knowledge, been recognized by an art historian.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of St. Sebastian

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See similar examples of the same subject by Mantegna, Durer, Michelangelo , Hans Baldung Grien, Carlo Crivelli, Perugino and, more recently, by Egon Schiele.

More Works by Campi

Notes:

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 20 Apr 2010. © 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.