Schiele’s Self-portrait as Saint Sebastian (1914-15)
In a poster for an exhibition of his paintings Egon Schiele drew on the age-old tradition of presenting St. Sebastian as a symbol for the artist himself suffering the pangs of artistic creation. Despite its importance, it is a tradition still unknown to today's art historians. Nevertheless, ever since the early Renaissance Sebastian's arrows have symbolized the painter's brushes. Moreover, given that the arrows, or rather "the brushes", point inwards to penetrate the saint himself, the idea is conveyed from one artist to another that "every painter paints himself." Even the unusual points to the arrows in Schiele's image seem to suggest the softness of brushes more clearly than the hardness of steel.
The execution of the saint is, furthermore, a visual homonym for the execution of the work of art with the death of the saint/artist symbolizing its completion.
Two other characteristics of the saint and his experience are important symbols for the artist: the suffering that he experiences prior to death and the purity of his mind. The former is a metaphor for the violent creative struggle in the artist's mind to conceive the image while the latter symbolizes the artwork's quality, purity as perfection. Just as a saint’s life imitates Christ’s suffering and redemption as a guide for our own, so the artist’s mind in the process of creation follows, allegorically at least, the suffering and redemption of the saint’s example.
More Works by Schiele
Don't take portraits at face value. If they're art, there's always more to them.
In the epistle of an apostle, the letters matter; as they also do in the self-portrait of a prophet, even if self-proclaimed.
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.