Study for St. Sebastian on the high altar of SS. Nazaro e Celso, Brescia

ca. 1520

Pen and brush in grey-brown ink on light blue paper
Inv. No. 5518

18 × 11.5 cm

zur  Biographie

Sebastian, a Roman officer, was condemned to die for his Christian beliefs. Although shot by arrows, however, he managed to survive, only to be beaten to death at a later date. In his role as protector against the plague, he was one of the most highly venerated saints. Titian characterizes the martyr’s muscular figure – an image of physical strength being exposed to destruction – using broad, energetic strokes of the pen which stand out strongly against the blue of the Venetian paper. The first arrow has just struck the saint, who is tied brutally, his left arm wrenched behind him, to a column or tree trunk. The drawing has been cut along the upper edge, so that his raised right arm is no longer visible.


This powerful figural study is one of the most impressive of Titian’s few surviving drawings. It is a preliminary study for a polyptych destined for the church of Santi Nazaro e Celso in Brescia. The artist’s point of departure is Michelangelo’s Rebellious Slave (begun in 1513, now in the Musée du Louvre in Paris), which he will have known from drawings. Although he has been compelled to translate the complicated turn of the body into a view designed for the flatness of a painting, the three-dimensional effect of the model, particularly in the legs, plays a greater role here than in the final work. There the emphasis is on the surface of the naked body as well as its defenceless state.


We can see that Titian has modified the position of the right leg, which rests on a tambour, bringing it closer to the body. In order to hide this alteration, he has gone over the surface near the right shinbone with a brush. This was a manner of proceeding which also allowed him to experiment with the effect of a dark background, in contrast to the light ground of the paper between the raised leg and the post. Both create a strong spatial effect and underline the plasticity of the leg. The contours, which have been worked over several times, have a more three-dimensional than linear effect.

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