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Saint Sebastian

© 2008 RMN / René-Gabriel Ojéda

Italian painting

Séverine Laborie

The picture was formerly in the church at Aigueperse in Auvergne. It was taken there after being offered in 1481 as a wedding gift to the daughter of Mantegna’s patron, Federico Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, and Gilbert de Bourbon, Count of Montpensier. The painting reflects Mantegna’s fascination for antiquity and illustrates his skill in perspective effects: the monumentality of the body of the martyred saint is heightened by the viewer’s upward-looking viewpoint.

A work of religious devotion

The worship of Saint Sebastian, protector against the plague, was widespread in the 15th century. Mantegna broke with traditional iconography by introducing references to antiquity. Encouraged by his teacher Squarcione and his contacts in Paduan humanist circles, he threw himself passionately into the rediscovery of antiquity. Yet his precise archaeological references in no way trammel his inventiveness, as illustrated by the column’s composite capital and the fanciful architecture in the landscape. The mixture of architectural styles expresses the continuity between the antique and Christian worlds, a theme dear to the humanists. Yet this is still a devotional work: the sculpted foot next to the saint’s feet symbolizes the triumph of Christianity over paganism via sacrifice, and the arrow-riddled body, although treated in the antique style, remains faithful to iconographic tradition.

Obsession with detail

The picture shows Mantegna’s perfectionist love of detail, which gave his work its admirably finished appearance but entailed slow, painstaking work. This could indicate the influence of Flemish painting, examples of which Mantegna may have seen in Ferrara as a young man. Although the use of oil paint was spreading, Mantegna preferred tempera on canvas, a refined technique whose matt effects are similar to fresco and enhance his incisive drawing, and whose opacity accentuates forms and the severity of the color. The result is close to etching, which Mantegna practiced between 1470 and 1485. The mineral coldness of the forms also evokes sculpture, the major art of the Renaissance, and Squarcione reproached his former pupil because “his paintings did not resemble living models but antique statues”. Late in life, Mantegna took this technique to the extreme by painting trompe-l’œil pictures of antique bas-reliefs.

The art of trompe l'oeil

Mantegna demonstrated his mastery of trompe l’œil in his depictions of architecture and sculpture (his oculus in the Camera degli Sposi in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua). He used this painterly artifice here by adding a porphyry frame, acting as an imaginary window onto the picture space. In doing so, he was evoking the theory discussed by Alberti in his De Pictura (1435), according to which the painting is a window on reality. The two executioners, daringly cut off below the shoulders, enhance this illusionist effect, which Mantegna used in other works, including The Crucifixion (INV 368). The viewer is invited to place himself at the same height as the archers, thus adopting their point of view and humbling himself before the sculptural body of the saint towering above him. The very low vanishing point, upward-looking viewpoint and masterful foreshortening imbue the martyr with a solemn monumentality.


- DE NICOLO SALMAZO Alberta , Mantegna, Citadelles et Mazenod, Paris, 2004.

- MARTINEAU Jane, Andrea Mantegna, catalogue de l’exposition, Londres, Royal Academy of art et New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.

- CARAVAGLIA Niny, Tout l’œuvre peint de Mantegna, Flammarion, Paris, 1978.

Technical description

  • Andrea MANTEGNA (Isola di Cartura (Veneto), 1431 - Mantua, 1506)

    Saint Sebastian

    c. 1480

  • H. 2.55 m; W. 1.40 m

  • Acquired in 1910 , 1910

    R.F. 1766

  • Paintings

    Denon wing
    1st floor
    Grande Galerie
    Room 710, 712, 716

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