St Sebastian Tended by Irene (1625) by Hendrick ter BrugghenOriginal Source: Oberlin, Allen Memorial Art MuseumOberlin, Allen Memorial Art Museum
Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene is one of the masterpieces of the Utrecht Caravaggist painter Hendrick ter Brugghen. Sebastian was bound to a stake and shot with arrows as punishment for professing Christian faith. Ter Brugghen captures the moment when Sebastian is freed by the widow Saint Irene and a maid.
The figure of the seated saint takes up the entire painting, and is positioned along a diagonal: his right arm reaches into the upper left corner, while the toes of his left foot touch the lower right corner. Two of the arrows in his body also follow this oblique line.
The arrows are the distinguishing marks of Saint Sebastian: they allude to his martyrdom, which he was forced to suffer for professing Christianity.
Also arranged along this diagonal are the heads of Sebastian, Irene, and her maid. Sebastian’s head slumps forward, exhausted from the pain suffered.
Irene initially believed that Sebastian was dead, as had his tormentors. Here, she inspects and carefully removes an arrow from his back.
The maid – who, unlike the wealthy Irene, is tanned from the sun – unties Sebastian’s bound wrist.
The lavish brocade fabric on which Sebastian is sitting stands out with its extraordinary red and gold. It indicates the wealth of Irene, a widow, and also echoes the warm tones of the rising sun in the background.
Representations of Saint Sebastian were widespread. He was worshipped as a plague saint, one who was penetrated by arrows – with wounds reminiscent of bloody buboes, or plague spots – before being soothed and ultimately healed as a result of Irene’s care. It is therefore no coincidence that the Utrecht Caravaggist painter chose to depict Saint Sebastian around 1624–1625, when the province of Utrecht experienced multiple outbreaks of the Black Death and more than 1,000 people died. The portrayal of Saint Sebastian emboldened residents and strengthened their hope for a cure.