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  Nicolas Régnier  
  (1591 / 1667)  
  Saint Sebastian  
  oil on canvas, 116 x 90 cm  
 



The painting under examination today depicts Saint Sebastian in the moment before being run through by the arrows of the Roman soldiers on the Palatino hill and it is most likely to be attributed to the hand of Flemish painter Nicolas Régnier. The martyrdom of Saint Sebastian is one of the most common iconographies in European painting from the XV century forward and it has been interpreted by a great number of painters, including: Mantegna, Perugino, Raphael and, later on, Guido Reni, who renewed the fame of the saint during the XVII century. The proposed dating for our refined canvas is, in fact, 1650, slightly after the famous versions of Saint Sebastian by Reni. Conversely to what most think the scene of Saint Sebastian pierced by the arrows is not a real martyrdom. The saint was discovered by Roman emperor Diocleziano sharing the word of Christ and he was immediately sentenced to death. He was tied to a tree, run through by many arrows and believed dead. Saint Irene from Rome climbed the Palatino hill with the intent of giving Sebastian a proper burial discovering, with great surprise, that he was still alive. She took him home with her and nursed him. Once he recovered from the terrible wounds Sebastian refused to leave Rome, ignoring the insisting requests of Irene, who knew too well that, if Diocleziano had known him to be still alive, he would have had him chased down and killed. In 304 AD, as Irene predicted, Sebastian was captured again, tortured and killed at the Palatino racecourse, as depicted by Paolo Veronese (Fig.1); his lifeless body was thrown in the cloaca maxima (the Roman drainage system). Once his mortal remains had reached the river Tiber they were found by Lucina, who buried them in the catacomb on the Appian Way. The former Roman soldier Sebastian, unconcerned of the fury of Diocleziano and of the sure death he would have faced once captured, became a symbol of courage and temperament, deciding to stand for his ideas against any possible consequence.The painting under examination today depicts Saint Sebastian in the moment before being run through by the arrows of the Roman soldiers on the Palatino hill and it is most likely to be attributed to the hand of Flemish painter Nicolas Régnier. The martyrdom of Saint Sebastian is one of the most common iconographies in European painting from the XV century forward and it has been interpreted by a great number of painters, including: Mantegna, Perugino, Raphael and, later on, Guido Reni, who renewed the fame of the saint during the XVII century. The proposed dating for our refined canvas is, in fact, 1650, slightly after the famous versions of Saint Sebastian by Reni. Conversely to what most think the scene of Saint Sebastian pierced by the arrows is not a real martyrdom. The saint was discovered by Roman emperor Diocleziano sharing the word of Christ and he was immediately sentenced to death. He was tied to a tree, run through by many arrows and believed dead. Saint Irene from Rome climbed the Palatino hill with the intent of giving Sebastian a proper burial discovering, with great surprise, that he was still alive. She took him home with her and nursed him. Once he recovered from the terrible wounds Sebastian refused to leave Rome, ignoring the insisting requests of Irene, who knew too well that, if Diocleziano had known him to be still alive, he would have had him chased down and killed. In 304 AD, as Irene predicted, Sebastian was captured again, tortured and killed at the Palatino racecourse, as depicted by Paolo Veronese (Fig.1); his lifeless body was thrown in the cloaca maxima (the Roman drainage system). Once his mortal remains had reached the river Tiber they were found by Lucina, who buried them in the catacomb on the Appian Way. The former Roman soldier Sebastian, unconcerned of the fury of Diocleziano and of the sure death he would have faced once captured, became a symbol of courage and temperament, deciding to stand for his ideas against any possible consequence. Our canvas is most likely to be attributed to Flemish painter Nicolas Régnier, we find confirmation of that, not only in the stylistic comparisons with many other works by his hand, such as the gaze of the saint looking up, detail that Régnier proposes in several subjects (Fig.2). In addition another version of our Saint Sebastian, larger in size, representing Sebastian after being hit by the arrows of the Roman soldiers, is now kept at the Musei Civici di Bassano (Fig.3). The high level of refinement of our painting and the great affinity with the Bassano version lead us to exclude the possibility that our canvas is an independent work made by a follower of Régnier, supporting the thesis that it is a second version, most likely, commissioned by a private collector. Both versions can be chronologically positioned during the Venetian period of the painter, therefore after his Roman stay, lasted until 1625. Régnier, after an initial apprenticeship in Belgium under Abraham Janssens, Flemish as well but clearly affected by the Italian manner, moved to Rome in 1615, where he associated himself with the Accademia di San Luca and found a chance to discover painters such as Simon Vouet and Guido Reni, who pushed him, later in his career, to a more classical style, as we can clearly see in our painting. After moving to Venice not only he refined his style as a painter but as a dealer as well. He was accustomed to manage his own commissions and we shouldn't be surprised of finding more than one version of his Saint Sebastian with such a similar layout. There is a great possibility that, the client who commissioned our Saint Sebastian, saw the one now kept at the Musei Civici di Bassano, painted slightly earlier than ours, possibly in a church, given the larger size of the painting, and asked Rénier for another version, who, evidently, was happy to please him. Nevertheless no other painting depicting Saint Sebastian from the Venetian period of the artist, which lasted until his death in 1667, is known to us. We are, however, aware of the existence of a stunning Saint Sebastian from the Roman period of the painter, now kept at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg (Fig.4). The comparison with our canvas is interesting as it proves the will of the artist of moving toward a more classical style later in his career. The Saint Sebastian of the Hermitage is less idealized, more realistic and doesn’t spare us of some gruesome details, such as the blood flowing from the wounds of the saint, a naturalistic approach we do not find in both our version and the one now at the Musei Civici in Bassano. We observe similarities in the drapery in all three versions but, the teaching of Reni (Fig.5), is evident only in the later two, while in the first one, partly because of the dark background, the painter opts for an almost Tenebroso approach, typical of the Roman and Neapolitan style of the first half of the XVII century and clearly connected to the revolution brought to Rome by Merisi just a few years before.The dating proposed for the Bassano version, 1650, confirms our initial feeling, positioning the production of the painting during the maturity of the artist, while he was already in Venice. Our Saint Sebastian is strictly connected to the Bassano version and it has surely been executed slightly after it. We can conclude that, this refined canvas by Règnier, not only enriches the already conspicuous catalogue of the versions of Saint Sebastian by important painters of the XVII century, but helps us to fully understand the evolution of this great artist, once put in relation with the version at the Musei Civici di Bassano and with the earlier one, now at the Hermitage. It confirms the intent of the artist of distancing himself from the Caravaggism, that, firstly in Rome and slightly later in all of Europe, seemed like the only possible stylistic solution.

 
     
 
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