(Ostiano, province of Mantua, 1582 – Rome, 1622)
The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian.
Oil on canvas.
381/4 x 305/8 in. (97.2 x 77.7 cm).
. N. Hartje, Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622), Ein nachfolger Caravaggios und seine europäische Wirkung. Monographie und Werkverzeichnis, VDG, Weimar, 2004, pp. 361-363 (cat. n° 33), fig. 21.
. R. Contini, in Hommage an Caravaggio (1610/2010), exhibition catalogue, under the direction of B.W. Lindemann and R. Contini (12 November 2010 – 6 March2011), Munich, Ed. Minerva, 2010, pp. 56-57, n° 9.
. G. Papi, Bartolomeo Manfredi, Soncino (CR), 2013, pp. 152-153.
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Hommage an Caravaggio (1610/2010), 12 March 2011, n° 9.
This painting’s iconography is completely different from the tradition of the period: it does not represent Saint Sebastian pierced with arrows, nor is it a depiction of the episode when he is healed of his wounds. Instead, Manfredi shows us a very special moment, which symbolically associates the image of the saint with that of Christ just before the Flagellation. Saint Sebastian is represented while being tied to a tree, where he will be repeatedly struck by the arrows of his tormentors. One of these, explicitly connected (albeit with some variation, and reversed in pose) with the figure of one of the men who tie Saint Sebastian to the tree in a lost original by Caravaggio, recorded in an important copy now in a private collection, is ensuring he cannot move, while the saint’s gaze and his unbound left hand are directed heavenwards, so he can entrust his fate to God.
He is already transfigured by Faith and Mercy, but he is still fighting against the enemies of the Church. Consistent with his absolute, steadfast attitude, Sebastian is shown as a powerful athlete, partly recalling the Belvedere Torso and more specifically the Bacchus that passed from the Ceoli collection to that of the Borghese, works that both provided prototypes for other paintings by Manfredi, such as the Bacchus and the Drinker in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Palazzo Barberini, Rome. The Classical reference is clear, as is the iconographical meaning of the picture, which seeks to convey trust in God, the power of true Faith (and at once, its fragility), and the noblest expression of tranquil acceptance by a mighty hero.
This fits in perfectly with what early sources tell us about Manfredi, highlighting two elements of his art both found in the painting before us. On the one hand, the artist was singled out at a very early age as a very close and careful follower Caravaggio, and on the other it was noted that in his mature style he tended to free himself of too close a dependence on the great master, conveying instead an idea of softness and sweetness that are certainly at odds with Caravaggio’s language.
Manfredi’s style is clearly evident in the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian: sweeping, powerful design; a heightened sense of volume; polished, broad surfaces to lend emphasis to strong light and shadow; sharp contrasts between nobility of expression and brutality of subject-matter; and classical composure applied to a desire to make an irrevocable escape from the norm. But what is more interesting is that from the point of view of style, it is possible to make a hypothesis about precise dating – something even more important as regards a painter like Manfredi, who never left a signature or date, and for whom, in the absence of secure documentary evidence, it is difficult to establish a reliable chronology.
The work appears to be an entirely mature one within Manfredi’s oeuvre, though it is certainly not a painting that can be defined as reflecting what Sandrart called the “Manfrediana methodus”, which is generally understood as a criterion for paintings with half-length figures, which form most of our painter’s output. We are helped here by the biographer Giulio Mancini, who wrote about Manfredi just before the artist’s death, and his account should be read in conjunction with the slightly later one by Giovanni Baglione, whose Vite de’ pittori, scultori e architetti (Rome, 1642) stated that: “he struggled to carry out his work, but did so very well, and what prevailed was his genius for the natural. He created his paintings with a secret knowledge of glazes and oil colour impasto, thus achieving great freshness”. Thus having reached his first full maturity at about the age of thirty, Manfredi drastically revised the very idea of Caravaggismo, grafting onto it an element of delicacy and “unità” of handling that stood in proud contrast to Caravaggio’s mentality, which considered only the most dramatic aspects of a picture.
This admirable union – a union of opposites, too – came to Manfredi after the death of Caravaggio (whom he outlived by ten years) by way of Guido Reni, and indeed during these years (circa 1614-1617) the Bolognese painter applied himself passionately to a revival of Classical forms, both in the beautifully frescoed Aurora in the Casino Borghese (later Pallavicini Rospigliosi) and the cycle of Labours of Hercules painted for the Duke of Mantua in 1617, now in the Louvre. This last model was so attractive and convincing that Manfredi, who was Mantuan and therefore highly attentive to what was being sent from Rome to the Gonzaga capital, must have held it in the highest esteem, indeed so much so that he combined it with what seemed (or may have seemed) to be the lesson of Caravaggio. This masterful combination provides a thorough explanation of the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and its position within the career of Manfredi.
The work truly reflects what the early commentators said about this soft, unified style that increasingly distinguished Manfredi from the world of Caravaggism, and connects well to the decisive words of Mancini, who said that “he did few public works”. This means that it may have been relatively late, and for the first time since his arrival in Rome in 1603, that Manfredi put his hand to some project for a church; and that this new side of his output, instantly interrupted by his death, immediately fell out of the limelight. Yet it is precisely a study of this aspect that would serve to establish a better framework for the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, a painting certainly destined for a private setting.
In reality, there exists no altarpiece officially recognised as by Manfredi in the Rome of those years, but the recent rediscovery – which seems to hit the mark, though once again it is no more than an attribution – of the Coronation of the Virgin with Saints John the Baptist, Francis and Mary Magdalen altarpiece in San Pietro, Leonessa, enables us to formulate a more precise view of the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. If Mancini’s account is true (and there is no reason to doubt it), the Leonessa altarpiece should date from about 1620, and it may have been left unfinished, given certain areas of uneven style, at the master’s death. Suffice it to compare the Saint Francis in the centre of this altarpiece with the Saint Sebastian in our Martyrdom, and we will understand that we are not only looking at the same hand, but the same moment in time.
The passionate gesture that signifies faith and acceptance of divine will in both paintings, but also a rejection of the cruelty of martyrdom, speaks of their absolute proximity in dating. Each of these works in an example of that grand but soft, unified style that Manfredi attained in his first maturity, which in his case sadly coincided with his demise.
The fallen titan in this Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian is an unforgettable figure in the history of Seicento painting, and is a masterful signpost of a new phase in the history of art that Manfredi introduced without being able to carry it through. In spite of the fact, then, that the sources speak of a “Manfrediana methodus”, adopted above all by the French painters active in Rome during the 1610s and 1620s, one could risk saying that Manfredi himself, having established the idea of horizontal scenes with half-length figures, combining genre subjects, music-making and card-playing, had one last phase of evolution, painting isolated figures that stand as solemn emblems of grand moral concepts, such as the majestic, recently-rediscovered King Midas.
The art of Manfredi, ennobled by a convergence of apparently contrasting ideals – the styles of Caravaggio and Reni – was getting ever closer to an elevated moral meditation, appropriate for what we know about the character of the artist himself: studious, severe and reserved.
Like King Midas looking at the water with which he cleanses the signs of his pride in a sweet, afflicted reflection, Saint Sebastian looks upwards, as firm and sensitive as an invincible hero, at once strong and delicate. It is possible, therefore, that the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian may be placed among the works produced at the end of Manfredi’s career, between 1618 and 1620, even if the lack of secure documentation hinders our ability to offer a firm date.