This altarpiece was originally painted for the chapel of the Renaissance cloister of Viseu Cathedral.
In the larger panel is the sculptural St. Sebastian, tied to the column and standing on a pedestal, accompanied by the executioners who have martyred him with arrows. A hovering angel, with the palm of martyrdom, is depicted in the upper left corner. In the background, to the right, between well-defined architectural forms, is a group of figures who seem indifferent to the scene taking place behind them. In the predella are the busts of St. Stephen, St. Blaise and St. Rock, framed by a landscape that is developed in a continuous form across all three paintings.
Showing great skill in the grouping together of the figures and the organisation of the architectural volumes, which form two dynamic diagonals, Vasco Fernandes runs counter to the normally expected frontality of such paintings, as was his wont. The tonal gradations of the earth are remarkably subtle, constructing the painting’s spatial depth without any accidents or surprises, and the analytical rigour that is clearly visible in the treatment of the clothes carelessly discarded in the lower right corner of the painting, or in the formal simplicity of the rope used to tie the Saint’s body to the column, is further enhanced by the greater sense of synthesis and expressiveness displayed by the painting’s forms. This option is particularly visible in the treatment of the saint’s naked body, displaying a chromatic unity that is reminiscent of stone sculptures and evoking a certain Italianate sensitivity. But it can also be seen in the figures of the executioners, whom the artist courageously moves to the edges of the figurative field. Some other discreet features are to be noted in this image, dominated by the poetic figure of the martyr. The cloth lying abandoned on the pedestal and the quiver and the clogs lying abandoned on the ground are fundamental components of Vasco Fernandes’ artistic discourse. They are used to suggest greater spatial depth and to enhance the composition’s narrative structure. But, fundamentally, they also serve to create the illusion of reality, to surprise and impress the observer not only through their disarmingly lifelike physical presence, but also through their poetic force. Such features are mostly simple and discreet objects that form a familiar part of everyday life. And this is one of the more notable differences between Vasco Fernandes’ paintings and those of his leading contemporaries, namely his tendency to employ this universe of simple things in contrast to the sumptuous and ostentatious scenes and objects that frequently fill, and indeed saturate, the representational space of the painting.
Were it not for the badly degraded state of conservation in which this painting has survived until the present, and which significantly detracts from its pictorial value, it might well be said that this St. Sebastian corresponds to one of the most creative moments in the work of this artist. Dalila Rodrigues