Painted sometime between 1617 and 1621, St Sebastian epitomises Guido Reni’s search for an ideal form of beauty. Sebastian’s pose is taken directly from the Belvedere Torso, which had been discovered early in the 16th century in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori and is now in the Vatican collection. Yet Reni has taken this muscular marble figure and turned it into a palpably soft-skinned man, who overcomes the pain of his wound by the intensity of his trust in God.
The painting combines a depiction of human suffering and passionate belief in such a way that the spectator cannot but feel this too. This was a feature of Reni’s work much praised by Carlo Cesare Malvasia, who boasted that the artist could paint heads with their eyes uplifted in a hundred different ways to suggest a state of ecstasy or divine inspiration. There are resonances not just with the marble sculpture of Apollo but also with Michelangelo’s Old Testament figure of David, but Reni has breathed life into the body through his delicate modelling and elegant silvery skin tones.