the Marches 1483 – Rome 1520
[San Sebastiano] c.1501-02
oil and gold on wood panel
45.1 (h) x 36.5 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Legacy of Guglielmo Lochis 1866
Raphael’s painting, also titled Young man as Saint Sebastian, must be one of the most ethereal and beautiful images ever produced of the saint. Portrayed as a gorgeous young person, he is shown half-length and richly dressed in embroidered robes and a gold chain. He holds a single arrow, his little finger delicately crooked. His lips are pursed and head tilted slightly. He looks serene, dreamily downcast, a little sad perhaps. This is an unusual composition for one of the most commonly depicted Christian saints and martyrs, not the expected full-length form of Sebastian, clad in a loincloth, bound and pierced with arrows.
Sebastian, a Gallic soldier probably from Narbonne, travelled to Milan and was recruited into the army of Emperor Diocletian. In Rome, as punishment for his conversion to Christianity and his efforts to convert others, he was bound to a stake and shot with arrows; he survived but was later beaten to death. Elsewhere he is shown in agony, straining against his bonds, blood coursing from his wounds. At other times the contrapposto of the semi-nude figure and his skyward glance suggest a fate accepted. Saint Sebastian was often invoked against the plague; he is the patron saint of athletes, archers and traffic police.
The Bergamo Saint Sebastian panel is an early work, completed by Raphael before he was twenty. The structure of the painting is a series of graceful arches and curves, interrupted only by the strong diagonal of the arrow. The saint’s sloping shoulders echo, in reverse, the hills of the distant landscape. The fall of the gold chain mirrors the shape of his face, while his chin, eyes and brows form another series of arches. The lines of the halo are repeated in the embroidery on his tunic and gorgeous red robe. The soft waves of his hair are picked up by the undulating foliage of the tree beyond.
The landscape itself is indistinct, atmospheric, even hazy, but also rather generic—there is nothing to suggest a particular place. Instead it acts as a beautiful backdrop for the figure and a counterpoint to the red of Sebastian’s robe.
Giovanni Valagussa draws our attention to Raphael’s almost miraculous skill in rendering the nuances of light and his wonderfully elegant brushwork in this painting command our attention. The harmonious formal composition and characteristic poses, as in many of the artist’s early works, are learnt from Pietro Perugino. The saint’s dreamy facial expressionis also very close to Raphael’s Saint John the Evangelist in his Crucifixion with the Virgin, saints and angels (The Mond Crucifixion) c.1502–1503. Saint Sebastian was probably produced for private devotion, although we know nothing of its origins. The close focus on the saint’s face and features suggests a greater emphasis on humanity, a common Renaissance ideal. At the same time we have the feeling that Sebastian is not quite of this world.
 As Tom Henry points out, Sebastian’s hair was originally shorter and some pentimenti are visible; see Hugo Chapman, Tom Henry and Carol Plazzotta, Raphael: From Urbino to Rome, London: National Gallery Company, 2004, cat. 26, p. 118.
 Giovanni Valagussa, Pittura italiana dal Rinascimento al XVIII secolo: Capolavori dell’ Accademia Carrara di Bergamo, Lausanne: Fondation de l’Hermitage, 2008, cat. 23, p. 108.
 Pietro Perugino (c.1450–1523). Valagussa also compares the work to Perugino’s Saint Mary Magdalen [Santa Maria Maddalena] 1501–1502, Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti.
 Painted for a chapel in San Domenico, Città di Castello; now National Gallery, London.