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The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian

The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian

Guido Reni (after) The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, n.d.
Oil on canvas, 54 x 38 in. Gift of George W. Brimmer, 1838

In 1838, the Boston collector and art patron George W. Brimmer (see entry 24 in Acquired Tastes), who was on an extended tour of Europe, wrote from Rome to tell the Trustees of the Boston Athenæum that he was sending the Library an “old & I may say perfect copy of Guido’s celebrated picture of the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian in the Papal Collection of the Capitol.”[1] In recording this gift, Isaac P. Davis, a member of the Athenæum’s Fine Arts Committee, called the painting an “ancient and excellent copy”[2] of the original; similarly, when William T. Andrews wrote on behalf of the Trustees to thank Brimmer for his generosity, he was able to report that the painting was “unanimously allowed to be a picture of unsurpassing beauty.”[3]

While such enthusiasm over the receipt of a mere copy of a work of art, especially of an Old Master, would be highly unlikely today, such works were proudly acquired and displayed in cultural institutions on both sides of the Atlantic in the early nineteenth century. The Boston Athenæum was no exception and Brimmer was obviously aware of the young library’s needs as he toured the famous collections of Rome. His benevolence was well noted and, some decades later, his love of the Athenæum in general and, specifically, his donation of a group of important art books to the institution was remembered by Boston historian Jacob Bigelow. “To the Boston Athenæum,” Bigelow wrote in 1860, “Mr. Brimmer has been, for many years, an efficient and active friend. The splendid collection of works on the fine arts, possessed by that institution, was, in a great measure, formed under his advice and assistance”[4] (see entry 24 in Acquired Tastes).

Brimmer’s gift of Saint Sebastian, painted by an unknown artist after an original by Guido Reni, was in keeping with the educational mission of the library as expressed in its acquisitions of books and art. The legend of Sebastian, set in the ninth century, says that, while serving as an officer in the Roman army, the young man secretly converted to Christianity and, once his treason was detected, he was famously punished by being tied to a tree, shot full of arrows, and left for dead. Miraculously, he survived and went on to practice and proselytize his chosen faith until he was finally bludgeoned to death by the Roman authorities, thereby achieving instant sainthood. Predictably, he is most often depicted in art at the moment of his aborted martyrdom, pierced by arrows—a torture meant to be reminiscent of the death of Christ—and seeking heavenward for succor. As Clara Erskine Clement, a respected nineteenth-century American chronicler of Christian iconography, astutely noted, the subject of Saint Sebastian has long been popular among artists because it affords “a fine opportunity for anatomical modeling and the representation of Apollo-like beauty.”[5]

Guido Reni, one of the best-known Italian artists of the seventeenth century, was as susceptible to St. Sebastian as any Western artist and he essayed the topic a number of times. As Brimmer noted in his original correspondence with the Athenæum, the Library’s canvas is copy of a one that Brimmer knew to be in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. In fact, that painting is a replica or copy of the original painting by Reni, executed in 1615-1616 and now at the Palazzo Rosso in Genoa.[6] Whatever the case, the subject was a favorite of Reni and his patrons, and other interpretations of it by Reni are now in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna, and elsewhere. Reni was widely known as a painter of classically idealized martyrs and saints who he paints more often than not gazing heavenward, as does Saint Sebastian, to indicate their closeness to God and their achievement of spiritual nirvana. As Reni scholar D. Stephen Pepper has written, Reni challenged his viewers to recognize the divine in his paintings, to see “what is not visible,” and “to seek with intelligence that which lies behind simple appearances.”[7] Predictably, this theme of saintly union with the divine was a very popular one during the Counter Reformation, when Reni was at his peak, and remained so well into the nineteenth century, when George Brimmer so proudly presented this painting to the Boston Athenaeum.

Judith DiCristofaro, from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 190-192. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1] George W. Brimmer to the Boston Athenaeum, April 24, 1838, Letter Book, BA.
[2] Minutes of the Proprietors of the Boston Athenaeum, 2: December 10, 1838.
[3] William T. Andrews to George W. Brimmer, September 11, 1838, Letter Book, BA.
[4] Jacob Bigelow, A History of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn (Boston and Cambridge: James Monroe and Company, 1860), 36-37.
[5] Clara Erskine Clement, Saints in Art (Boston: L.C. Page and Co, 1899), 188-198.
[6] D. Stephen Pepper, Guido Reni: A Complete Catalogue of His Works with an Introductory Text (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1984), 232 (cat. no. 48).
[7] Pepper, 44, 50.