When this compelling, transformative statuette of Saint Sebastian became available, it was an opportunity not to be missed, as the Museum has nothing comparable...
Rarely does a baroque ivory of such monumental complexity, powerful expressiveness, and technical bravura appear on the art market. When this compelling, transformative statuette of Saint Sebastian became available, it was an opportunity not to be missed, as the Museum has nothing comparable.
In the early seventeenth century, ivory came to be regarded as equivalent to bronze, the standard medium for small statuettes in eminent collections. Elite collectors prized ivory's exotic and sensuous properties, and skilled sculptors created figures with a pallor that matched the contemporary ideal for the human complexion; objects that begged to be touched, handled, and admired from all sides. In this deeply moving sculpture, the artist imbues a functional object, used for personal religious devotion, with a sense of grandeur.
According to legend, Sebastian was accused of betraying the Roman emperor Diocletian and sentenced to death. Diocletian's archers failed to kill him, however, and he was saved by angels. When Sebastian subsequently reappeared before Diocletian, the emperor had his soldiers club him to death.
Here the saint is at the threshold of bodily and spiritual transition. The sculptor teasingly associates Sebastian's twisted hands and stretched fingers with the tree's branches and twigs behind, a deliberate visual confusion that links man to tree (and an allusion to sculptural depictions of the myth of Apollo and Daphne, wherein the nymph transforms into a laurel tree to escape the lascivious pursuit of the god). In fact, the youth is set free, still bound with the rope around his wrists but miraculously cut loose from the branch that forms, along with the tree trunk, a gallowslike structure. Following the natural curve of the tusk, the youth's sensuously rendered body is carved out of a single piece of ivory, twisting away from the path of Diocletian's arrows. The brilliant use of the ivory's grain guides the spectator's eye upward along the slightly elongated body with its leanly articulated musculature. This is carving of extraordinary accomplishment and appeal. Taking all the elements of this virtuoso statuette into consideration, it becomes clear that this moment—when an angel descends to crown Sebastian a victorious martyr, when he accepts and cheats death—this is the moment of transformation of the earthly man into a saint "in glory," and now, it is also a glorious addition to the Met's collection.
Marina Kellen French Curator
Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts