Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian (1480)
In Mantegna's image of St. Sebastian from around 1480 the saint is pierced by arrows that appear to have come from outside the picture frame, and thus in poetic terms as paintbrushes from the artist's studio. The classical rubble even suggests an idealized studio setting strewn probably like Mantegna's with the marble remains of antiquity.
He reinforces this reading by inserting a close resemblance of himself as the archer in a lower corner. The accompanying figure may represent the patron but, underneath, he seems more like a psychopomp or muse such as Dante's Virgil. In any event I strongly believe, based on the evidence on EPPH and elsewhere, that Mantegna's idea was to imply that the artist-archer has used his brushes (arrows) to execute his painting of St. Sebastian.
Although, as far as I know, the archer has never been identified as Mantegna himself, the comparison with the self-portrait (inset) clearly suggests that he fused some of his own features into the weather-beaten face of the archer. The eyebrows, eyes, the bags under the eyes, the broken nose and chin all recall Manetgna, the mouth perhaps deformed by rotten teeth.
To convey that the archer-artist painted himself, Mantegna fused features from a younger, more idealized self-portrait (center) into not just the saint under discussion (top) but another portrait of Sebastian as well (bottom). Neither is likely to be an exact self-portrait, not even the "self-portrait" but similiar enough (not the noses, bags under eyes, and curls of hair) to convey his meaning to other like-minded artists. Given some resemblance then to both archer and victim, Mantegna is "painting" himself.
More Works by Mantegna
Joseph, worth only a cameo appearance in the Bible, is a major star in visual art. Cast as a narcoleptic, he falls asleep in one image after another without any art historian, to my knowledge, pausing to ask: Why does he sleep so much?
How to recognize the Madonna and Child as a symbol of the artist
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