Andrea Mantegna, Saint Sebastian

Andrea Mantegna, Saint Sebastian, oil on wood panel, c. 1456-59 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) 

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] The nude had been off limits for a thousand years.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:08] In the Middle Ages, the only opportunity artists had to paint or sculpt the nude was to do Adam and Eve. With the Renaissance, we have this renewed interest in the human body and artists looking for opportunities to paint it.

Dr. Zucker: [0:21] What we’re looking at is Andrea Mantegna’s very small painting of Saint Sebastian. It’s in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It’s this tall, thin painting that is completely improbable. In some ways, it is just an elaborate ruse to be able to paint the human body, but of course, Mantegna was also deeply in love with all things classical.

Dr. Harris: [0:45] Both of those things are really in evidence here.

Dr. Zucker: [0:48] Look at all the fragments of sculpture and architecture that comes from his study of ancient Rome.

Dr. Harris: [0:55] Of course, the figure of Saint Sebastian himself looks like an ancient Greek or Roman sculpture. According to legend, Saint Sebastian was in the employ of the ancient Roman emperor Diocletian, who didn’t know that Sebastian was Christian.

Dr. Zucker: [1:08] Apparently, Sebastian came to the aid of two other Christians who had been found out. Therefore, his own Christianity was revealed. He was ordered to be executed when he refused to renounce his Christianity. He was shot with arrows but he survived that attack.

Dr. Harris: [1:25] And was later clubbed to death.

Dr. Zucker: [1:27] It’s easy for us in the 21st century to forget how little was known about the human body. What knowledge had once existed from ancient Greece and Rome had largely been lost. Here was a generation that was rediscovering the body for the first time in a thousand years.

Dr. Harris: [1:41] You couldn’t go and buy a book on anatomy, you couldn’t look something up on the Web. This was a time when rediscovering the body meant an investigation of the body from scratch, with very little knowledge left from antiquity.

Dr. Zucker: [1:54] The understanding of the body in the ancient world, like contrapposto, is just being rediscovered in this century. Look at the way in which the S-curve of the body is accentuated here. You can really see an artist who was studying ancient sculpture.

[2:06] In fact, one could probably argue that the arrows themselves almost function as diagramming lines that help us see the shifting axes of the body, but there are also funny anachronisms here. Things are disjointed in terms of time.

[2:20] Saint Sebastian is being martyred by an ancient Roman emperor, at a time when ancient Rome is at the height of its power, and yet, what the artist is showing us here is ancient Roman architecture in ruins, which is the way it looked in Mantegna’s own time.

Dr. Harris: [2:34] He’s clearly relishing the beauty of those ruins as ruins.

Dr. Zucker: [2:38] It’s as if the faith of Christianity has outlived the mighty Roman Empire.

Dr. Harris: [2:43] Which lays in ruins around the feet of the saint.

Dr. Zucker: [2:46] Here is an artist who is, in part, responsible for creating the art that we know of as the early Renaissance. Characteristic of that moment, we see somebody who is giving us as much visual information as possible.

[2:57] Look at the precision, even of the buildings in the extreme distance. That beautiful atmospheric perspective. That careful delineation of form, of mass.

Dr. Harris: [3:07] Modeling, so we’ve got a sense of the three-dimensionality of the body, the light coming from the left. We can see Mantegna’s use of linear perspective in the tiles on the floor. This has everything we expect of the Renaissance.

Dr. Zucker: [3:21] This is bringing together those fragments from antiquity that were just being rediscovered. This is trying to place these figures in a world that we can occupy.

Dr. Harris: [3:30] And a vast landscape. We see the archers retreating on a road in the background and a whole city that looks very much like an ancient Roman city.

Dr. Zucker: [3:40] Here’s an artist that is central to the northern Italian tradition. Somebody who is working in Venice, working in Padua, understands what’s taking place in Florence, and is just such an exemplar of this reinvention of ancient humanism.

[3:53] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Andrea Mantegna, Saint Sebastian," in Smarthistory, November 23, 2015, accessed July 18, 2024,