Hans Baldung Grien’s St. Sebastian Altarpiece (1507)

The central panel of an altarpiece by Hans Baldung Grien (c. 1480 - 1545) depicts St. Sebastian being shot by two archers while Grien himself stands oddly behind the victim. While it is not unusual to find the figure of an artist depicted in his own altarpiece, they are rarely near the center of the central panel where Grien has placed himself. It is a position that must have meaning. Thus while Grien appears uninvolved in the drama, his sideways glance out of the painting is so similar to Saint Sebastian’s that the two figures are linked. Their features are similar as well, disregarding the saint’s moustache and sideburns. The implication is that the saint is an alter ego of the artist.

Weapons, as we have explained elsewhere, often symbolize the tools of an artist with arrows commonly used for a paintbrush. Here the symbolism is made more evident by the point-blank range from which the archers shoot. No archer would be so close to his target but a painter would be. The archers, therefore, are “painters” and the saint is their “painting.”  Strengthening the connection, the real artist stands between the two groups, each an alter ego of the artist. Also, the only arrow that has successfully hit its target comes not from the direction of the archers, from where you might expect it, but from the front where Grien himself would have stood while painting the picture. This is further emphasized by the fact that only that arrow, out of all the features in the painting, appears to stick out from the surface of the painting. In comparison, all else appears flat. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Hans Baldung Grien, St. Sebastian (central panel) (c. 1507) Oil on wood. German National Museum, Nuremberg

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The presence of the artist in the center of an altarpiece with a meaning particular to art and artists suggests that, contrary to conventional opinion, not all commissions were dictated by the patron who almost certainly did not suggest this one. Perugino, for instance, painted St. Sebastian so many times during the course of his career that the choice of the saint in each painting was probably the artist’s even if the patron, on occasion, desired the saint’s presence as well. Here Hans Baldung Grien, who was born Hans Baldung but seems to have acquired the nickname Grien (“green”) as a painter, has even painted himself in green which, for artists, is the color of fertility and thus a symbol for the virtuosity of the artist’s imagination.

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of the Saint and the self-portrait

Click image to enlarge.

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.