Guercino’s St. Sebastian Succoured by Two Angels (1617)

The story of St. Sebastian has long been the archetypal theme through which artists could convey their self-referential program to the world. Revealed on this site for the first time St. Sebastian has been used like this for over 500 years starting in the early Renaissance1. Even today artists aware of the saint's significance continue to make a link between their tools (brush, pen or burin for example) and the arrows penetrating Sebastian's body.2 Here angels take over the role normally given to St. Irene who, it was said, came to help the stricken saint by removing the arrows.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Guercino, St. Sebastian Succoured by Two Angels (1617) Oil on copper. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

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See how an angel, taking a break from "painting" Sebastian, holds an arrow for a brush in one hand, its tip upwards as an artist would hold a brush. The blood-stained fabric is likewise used in place of a paint-stained cloth which artists almost always have close at hand to wipe their canvasses or brushes.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Guercino, Detail of St. Sebastian Succoured by Two Angels

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The face of the "painting" angel looks away but his long, unkempt hair swept to the side is somewhat reminiscent of how Guercino depicted his own hair in self-portraits (inset).

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Captions for image(s) above:

Guercino, Detail of St. Sebastian Succoured by Two Angels with detail of an engraving after Guercino's Self-portrait by Bartolozzi, inverted.

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The composition appears to represent Guercino's own mind receiving divine instruction. Even Sebastian (the "painting") looks up to see the other angel giving orders with a pointing (and thus "painting") finger. He himself, partially "painted" by some discarded arrows in the foreground, awaits his completion. We see, then, an allegorical depiction of how a painter must paint himself by looking inwards because it is only there that both truth and divine inspiration (the guiding angel) can be found.

See many other images of St. Sebastian by other artists listed in footnote 1 below.

Captions for image(s) above:

Guercino, St. Sebastian Succoured by Two Angels (1617) 

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Notes:

1. The importance of St. Sebastian as a self-referential "painter" being painted by his arrows was first revealed on this site as can be seen in entries concerning depictions of St. Sebastian by Mantegna (3 versions), Botticelli, Michelangelo, PeruginoLorenzo Lotto, Carlo Crivelli, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Memling, Hans Baldung Grien, Antonio Campi, Luca Giordano, Eugène Delacroix and Egon Schiele.

2. At least two living artists, Gaela Erwin and Jaff Seijas have drawn and painted figures of St. Sebastian either as a self-portrait or with ink-loaded pens instead of arrows piercing the saint's body.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 06 Jul 2012. © 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.