The meaning of death

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A saint with an unusual destiny

What we know of Saint Sebastian provides material for a novel. His name, already, is out of the ordinary. Sebasin Greek, means religious fear, and sebastos refers to veneration: a sebastos, for example, can be an emperor. The Sebastian of the Christian tradition is a holy martyr who, according to The Golden Legend of Jacques de Voragine, lived in IIIe century. Nothing is more romantic than his life: a soldier from Gaul, he went to Milan to enlist in the army of Diocletian. Converted to Christianity, he is held to be the author of miracles and mass conversions, which is why the emperor, a pagan, has him condemned to death. His martyrdom, in the history of art, is shown as that of a man tied to a post to be pierced with arrows, a torture from which he miraculously recovered, before being beaten to death and thrown into the sewers of Rome, then finally buried with the apostles Peter and Paul.

Mantegna and the tradition of the saint

Saint Sebastian, obviously, inspired Andrea Mantegna, who took up the subject three times: first in 1459 after escaping the Black Death of Padua (remember that the saint is usually invoked against this epidemic), then in 1480, and finally around 1490, in this version which is that of the Ca’ d’Oro (the “House of Gold”) in Venice. Now, contrary to the first two paintings, which represent Sebastian in the middle of an ancient landscape teeming with details, contrary also to those painted by Perugino, Memling, Botticelli, Raphael or Titian, this one shows a saint who fills all the image. What do we have in front of us? A man riddled with arrows who writhes in pain, his eyes half-closed turned towards the sky… and that’s it. There is something to be surprised about.

follow his gaze

Tormented, dying, Sébastien turns to Heaven. It is Heaven that he invokes, he, who is nicknamed the athlete of God, so that God comes to his aid. It is up to the viewer, therefore, to follow the gaze of this champion of Christianity to, in turn, turn to God. The first thing that presents itself to our gaze is therefore the human body, a perfect, heroic body, pure product of the aesthetic canons of the humanist Renaissance. Only, this body is not the end point of the gaze, but the starting point. What you have to look at, in the end, is what goes beyond the body, what also comes out of the frame of the picture: the invisible. That’s why Mantegna didn’t add any landscape around his last San Sebastian : the essential is not in what the sight offers us, but in what exceeds it.

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Does death have a meaning?

Nothing picturesque in this martyrdom. No marble column, no bloody flogging, no inflexible executioners, nothing spectacular. Mantegna depicted a dying man. But who does not die just anyhow. Alone already. Like Christ on the Cross. Athletically beautiful, then. Like Apollo, the god-archer who strikes in Homer. Like a saint, above all, who dies for a cause and delivers a message. And this message, we have it before our eyes, provided we open them well. In the ribbon wrapped around the extinguished candle, at the bottom right of the painting, an inscription says in Latin: “Nihil nisi divinum stabile est, coetera fumus”, “nothing is stable except the divine, the rest is smoke”. The rest, what is it? Earthly existence, and what it imposes on us. Plague, epidemic, even death, tragedies do exist. But they have only one time, and they go out like the candle at the feet of the saint. The arrows say it enough: everything passes, everything flies, human time, which pierces and kills, but there is something else after that, evoked by the smile of Saint Sebastian…

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