Reprinted from the Journal of American Medicine
One of the most popular themes of Renaissance painting was the suffering St Sebastian. Barely clothed, bound to a tree, his contorted limbs and torso pierced with arrows, the subject could hardly have been more dramatic in drawing the attention of the viewer nor more suited to show off the virtuosity of the painter. Often the scene was enhanced by the addition of one or two other figures, usually female. Most often the figure was that of St Irene, sometimes with a companion, tending to the suffering Sebastian and attempting to relieve his pain. The latter composition was the choice of Hendrick Ter Brugghen (1588-1629) when he painted what is considered to be one of his most important works, St Sebastian Tended by St Irene (cover). Completed just four years before his death at the untimely age of 41, the painting reflects Ter Brugghen's mature handling of the lighting effects and color usage he had learned in Italy from the works of Caravaggio and that would subsequently appear, transmuted, in the delicate works of his countryman, Vermeer. Two years earlier, in 1623, Ter Brugghen had already hinted at such innovations in two very different works: David Praised by the Israelite Women (JAMA cover, May 14, 2003) and The Gamblers (JAMA cover, September 10, 2003).
According to legend (which, typically, takes the shape of its times and circumstances), St Sebastian lived in the third century AD during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. The Roman ruler is remembered today chiefly for his persecution of the young and rapidly expanding Christian sect. Sebastian, who was secretly a member of the sect, had meanwhile become a favorite of the Emperor and served as an officer in his personal guard. Unknown to Diocletian, however, Sebastian was routinely bringing comfort and aid to the imprisoned Christians. When Diocletian learned of this treachery, he condemned his favorite to be tied to a tree, shot by his archers, and left to die; the order was duly carried out. Before Sebastian could succumb to his wounds, however, he was discovered by St Irene, herself the widow of another officer in the imperial guard, St Castulus, who, like Sebastian, had been a member of the secret network giving comfort to Christians. So much for the story. It is basically this legend that artists for centuries have been interpreting in whatever way best suited their artistic intentions and abilities.
Ter Brugghen, at the peak of his confidence and abilities, has eschewed the more grisly aspects of the legend, choosing instead to concentrate on the formal and painterly aspects of the story. As in many of his other works, he chooses to express his thought principally through the heads and hands of the figures. In contrast to The Gamblers and David Praised by the Israelite Women, however, where the heads and hands are arranged more or less along a horizontal line, in St Sebastian Tended by St Irene he makes them a strong diagonal, upper left to lower right. The maid is busy untying Sebastian's right arm, while Irene supports the chest of the slumped figure as she gently tries to remove one of the arrows from his torso. A third arrow, like the other two leaving a nearly bloodless wound, pierces the thigh. With their complexions ranging from the ruddy skin of the maid, through the paler skin of the military officer's widow, and finally to the sickly, greenish pallor of the victim, the juxtaposed faces form an interesting contrast. Sebastian's color rivals only that of the decapitated head of Goliath in the David and the Israelite Women painting. Finally, it has been often noted that the dense, pyramidal mass of the three figures resembles the composition of the traditional Italian Deposition scenes. But it is also interesting to note the Dutch characteristics in Ter Brugghen's painting: the horizon line is low; piercing it at a right angle is a tall, slender tree. If the lines of the arrows are extended, they, too, will be found to meet and cross each other in tidy perpendiculars.
It is paradoxical, perhaps, that Irene, whose name derives from the Greek word for "peace," should be associated with two military officers in the service of one of the most infamous emperors of ancient times: she is the widow of one, the healer of another. But then, it is perhaps not strange at all. It is peace, after all, that heals the wounds of war and alleviates the pain of loss.
Sebastian, incidentally, did not heed Irene's advice that he leave Rome as soon as he had recovered. He stayed and was finally beaten to death by Diocletian's soldiers. In later years, he was, among other things, invoked against the plague.
©M. Therese Southgate, MD
The Cover Section Editor: M. Therese Southgate, MD, Senior Contributing Editor.