What do you see when you look at this painting? I first see the vastness of the blue and the background escaping with the perspective, and soon afterwards a monumental figure of a young man grows up in front of me. I watch him with attention – he certainly feels pain, because in his body are arrows from under which flows of blood trickle. However, nothing in his attitude or in his expression reveals suffering. The young man raises his eyes to the sky, does not even try to free himself from the ropes. According to legend, Saint Sebastian was sentenced to death by shooting. Here we see him still in full strength. Does it mean that we are standing in the place of a platoon of archers who have stopped firing for a moment?

Antonello da Messina, Saint Sebastian, ca. 1476-79, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

The whole scene seems to be immobile, as if it were a lazy sunny afternoon. Characters in the background practically do not pay attention to the execution. The man on the left sleeps on a warm day, on the right, the rest, is chatting or having a stroll. The only people who seem to notice the figure of Saint Sebastian are the women on the terrace, probably courtesans, seeking an escape from the boredom of loneliness and the sunlit young mother hugging her baby. However, neither of them reveals any involvement in the events from the foreground. As if they treated it as necessary and accepted its inevitability. For me, the only character who escapes from the image of the cruelty of the execution is a small child clinging to a woman in blue.

Antonello da Messina came from Sicily, probably he was educated in Naples, however, he had the greatest influence on the painting of Venice, where he stayed for more than a year from 1475. This painting was commissioned by the local brotherhood of Saint Roch (scuola di San Rocco).

An overview of Messina’s work can be seen at the temporary exhibition at the Palazzo Reale in Milan until June 2.

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