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Looking to Saint Sebastian during Renaissance Plague Epidemics

Updated on March 31, 2015

Saint Sebastian was “considered to be effective helpers against the plague.”1 He was a Roman Martyr in Italy. At first he was an officer in the imperial bodyguard. He secretly was a Christian when others in the area were not. He was caught and was to be killed for his Religion. He was pierced with arrows by Mauritanian archers for his punishment and was supposed to die. The arrows stayed away from major arteries and allowed him to not die. St. Irene, a widow, healed St. Sebastian to health. He later was beaten to death with a club.2 Sebastian is seen as the protector of the plague, but why? Why does his story relate so much to those people who fear the plague that allows him to be the protector of the plague? Can these questions be answered just by looking at Josse Lieferinxe’s oil on wood titled, Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken.

The Black Death entered Europe from Asia in year 1347. It was a disease that killed millions of people and wiped out cities. This disease was transmitted from animals to humans.3 The black rat lived close to men and carried fleas that would spread the bubonic plague to humans.4 Some even contracted pneumonia plague. It was an infectious airborne disease that almost always killed the person who had it.5It would hit them with such little time that they often died within a few hours.6 The fear of getting this illness was very high and there was such a small time to respond till they died. Many people fled away from the cities into the countryside’s. As they did this, they spread the disease as well. As people grew scared of the new people immigrating to their cities, they tried to control their visitors as much as possible. Many were buried outside the city walls for fear of getting the illness that the dead had.7 On top of the outbreak of the plague there was a food shortage occurring. Many people were also dying of starvation.8 There were many other ways that the people were dying, but in this time many people did not know how to stop it.

There were numerous outbreaks of disease that occurred in parts of Europe, some consisted of the disease Yesinia Pestis and some were other diseases. The huge outbreaks occurred during a number of different years at a time over a long period of time. It was a long drawn out process that hurt much of the population.9 Religious activity seemed to increase after 1347. Many people intensified their religious lifestyle in hopes that God would save them instead of doom them with disease.10 “Resulting from this ideology it was assumed that God’s mercy could only be influenced by invoking the memory of human suffering.” This pushed painters and patrons to do pieces in the form of the “Crucifixion, the Man of sorrow, and the Pieta.”11 This leads me to believe that many people thought that if they showed how Jesus suffered that they could save themselves. This idea seems confusing to me because I don’t understand why they think this would keep the disease away from affecting their health. Their mindset was very different in the Renaissance. I would have thought that they would have wanted to show happy scenes to lift the spirits of everyone in such a horrible state. Showing tragedy seems to relate everyone to what Jesus went through which might be what they were wanting. Being able to relate to Jesus is a way to become closer to God. If they suffer maybe they have a better chance of not going to purgatory or hell.

There are many signs that enter Renaissance artwork because of this endemic that virtually touched everyone somehow. One symbol that began to show up during this time of the plague was the arrow. It showed God’s wrath on the people in the painting. Many beliefs were seen as God being angry at mankind and they were being punished for their wrong doing with the deadly plague. One saint that is often painted with arrows is Saint Sebastian. Saint Sebastian was not always seen with arrows, it only became apparent after the plague had set in to Europe. Before the Black Death he was rarely seen with arrows.12

In efforts to turn this dark time around, Florence, for example, ordered sanitary laws. For starters the legislation thought it would be better for men and women to bath separately. This would reduce sin which was one reason they thought they were dying.13 Also a strict policy on the control of prostitutes and sodomites. This was supposed to help with sanitation. All types of ways came about to help with sanitation including, cleaning of streets and piazzas, keep animals out of the city, and careful butcher practices. Although they did these practices, they also looked to God for his help.

With many people fleeing the city of Florence, the city hired soldiers and archers to protect the land of absent people. This is the first time I am seeing anything about archers or arrows and they were hired once many people were noticeably absent. The city ordered the Florence people to stay in Florence but only the poor were the ones staying. Taxes were raised in order for people to stay as well as to pay the people guarding the land. 14

For many during the time of the Renaissance, fear was stricken into those who had the plague or was surrounded by the horrible disease. Saint Sebastian was very committed to the Christian faith. The Saint was executed by archers, healed by a widow, and then beaten once again. He was later thrown in the sewer to die one last time. His suffering showed great commitment towards the Christian faith just like numerous other martyrs and even Jesus Christ. It is said that before the Black Death, the Saint was not shown with arrows. Although after numerous epidemics in the 1500’s, arrows began to show up in the art that depicted the faithful Saint Sebastian.15 The question arises as to why they focused on the part of the story with arrows killing the saint instead of other ways that were not always included during the Renaissance artwork. There are two stories of the saint and execution, but only the one with the arrows is shown throughout the 14th century. After these paintings and other forms of art were completed, he was seen as the Man of Sorrow.16

“The very fact that Sebastian, although mortally wounded, had recovered made him a favorite among the plague intercessors. St. Sebastian rarely, if ever, is depicted nursing patients, as so many plague saints were. Nevertheless, the Christian martyr had earned his reputation as a healer at an early date.”17

So this man of sorrow is the one that the people of that time can relate to as the epidemics are occurring. He was one who suffered for his religion and faith just like Christ did. He has many wounds but fights to live with the help of others. Others show their love for him and God as well, and shows people hope through such a horrifying time in their life. Many pieces of artwork were done as a peace offering to God.18

Saint Sebastian is not the only saint looked upon as a plague saint, but he is in numerous art pieces that became very popular. One that is on the cover of the book, Images of Plague and Pestilence, is painter Josse Lieferinxe’s piece St. Sebastian Intercedes during the Plague. The painting was done in the years 1497 to 1499. On the lower section of the painting it focuses on the humans that are suffering with the disease on earth. The two grave diggers carry the dead corpse to their final resting place. Their appearance is much different than those of the other people in area. Their hats are cylinder shaped and have a strap that goes around their chin. A small piece of paper with the plague prayers written on it is to ensure the grave diggers health.19 These men seem to have a hard life having to deal with the sick and dead. Their health is in harm’s way as they put themselves with the sick. The right side has the opening to the church with a cross, container with holy water, and the missal present. One man on the ground shows how fast the sickness can occur to anyone. They believed that God had much to do with the sickness and they had been punished for wrong doing. Many paintings like this were done to show their devotion towards their Christian faith.20

Figure 1.  Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken, By Josse Lieferinxe. Oil of Wood, 15th century. 21
Figure 1. Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken, By Josse Lieferinxe. Oil of Wood, 15th century. 21

Above all this commotion includes Christ, Saint Sebastian, the devil, and an angel. Saint Sebastian seems to be pleading with Christ. He has arrows already pierced in his body but he doesn’t look like he is in much pain. At first glance I thought the figure under Saint Sebastian was the devil but it is in fact a demon, or bad angel. Both angels are shown to explain that people have two angels, a good and a bad. The good angel is there to protect while the bad is there to test him. It seems like they believed that since they had both good and bad angels, if they did more bad things than good that they would be stricken with the plague.

There is much terror going on under them and they believed that Christ would help them through their hard struggles. The angel and the demon seem to be facing each other almost like they are in battle. I’m sure there are lots of battles that the people with the plague went through. We can see from the faces of those witnessing the burial that they are filled with fear. Some like the women in the red throws her hands up as she sees the dead corpse on the ground, while others turn to God and pray like the man in front of her. Even in the middle ground we see more corpses being hulled out by a cart. The whole town is filled with the disease. Even the man on the ground is stuck under the wrapped corpse on the ground. The men on the right side are trying to put the souls that have past to rest.

It is thought to be the artist, Lieferinxe’s firsthand experience with the bubonic plague epidemic. There is so much chaos occurring its easier for us the viewer to image what was going on during an outbreak. This painting is able to connect the spiritual world with the physical world. Sanitation becomes more of a concern for the people of the city, but they still thought that there was disease occurring because of their bad behavior.

Other paintings of Saint Sebastian show a different him in a more common place for the saint. He places St. Sebastian in 15th century undershorts and the temporary Venetian houses around him. One is able to connect to the saint because he looks like one of them in their setting. One is able to connect better to the painting. So much suffering was happening just as it had to saint Sebastian. His wounds don’t show that much blood which reminds me of how the plague hurt so many people without warning. It happened so fast and didn’t show signs and symptoms.22

After much research I was able to conclude that Saint Sebastian was absolutely looked up to by those who feared the plague because he was able to survive the terrible arrow wounds. He has been through very hard times and was still able to find help from God with the help of others. He did not suffer from the arrows because he had God in his life. Many had that idea to help them see light in their future. He is seen in many art pieces that help me understand just how much they looked up to him as well as feared this disease. Not knowing what caused the disease, what would fix it and when it would strike are all things that set the people of the Renaissance back.

NOTES

  1. Evelyn Welch, Art and Society in Italy 1350-1500, (Oxford Unv. Press. NY, 1997), 150)
  2. Löffler, Klemens, "St. Sebastian," The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13668a.htm(accessed November 20, 2012).
  3. Philip Ziegler, The Black Death, (Intext Publisher, 1969), 41.
  4. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, The Black Death: A Turning Point in History? (Edited by William M. Bowsky. University of California, Davis, 1971), 1-2.
  5. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, The Black Death: A Turning Point in History? (Edited by William M. Bowsky. University of California, Davis, 1971), 2.
  6. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, The Black Death: A Turning Point in History? (Edited by William M. Bowsky. University of California, Davis, 1971), 2.
  7. Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (Intext Publisher, 1969), 41.
  8. Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (Intext Publisher, 1969), 44.
  9. Christine M. Boeckle, Images of Plague and Pestilence (Truman State University Press, 2000), 72.
  10. Christine M. Boeckle, Images of Plague and Pestilence (Truman State University Press, 2000), 75.
  11. Christine M. Boeckle, Images of Plague and Pestilence (Truman State University Press, 2000), 75.
  12. Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (Intext Publisher, 1969), 45-47.
  13. Ann G. Carmichael, Plague and the poor in Renaissance Florence. (Cambridge Unv. Press, 1986), 98.
  14. Ann G. Carmichael, Plague and the poor in Renaissance Florence. (Cambridge Unv. Press, 1986), 97.
  15. Christine M. Boeckle, Images of Plague and Pestilence (Truman State University Press, 2000), 55.
  16. Christine M. Boeckle, Images of Plague and Pestilence (Truman State University Press, 2000), 55.
  17. Christine M. Boeckle, Images of Plague and Pestilence (Truman State University Press, 2000), 55-56.
  18. Christine M. Boeckle, Images of Plague and Pestilence (Truman State University Press, 2000), 60.
  19. Christine M. Boeckle, Images of Plague and Pestilence (Truman State University Press, 2000), 79.
  20. Christine M. Boeckle, Images of Plague and Pestilence (Truman State University Press, 2000), 79.
  21. “Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken.” The Walter Art Museum. http://art.thewalters.org/detail/6193/saint-sebastian-interceding-for-the-plague-stricken/ (accessed November 20, 2012)
  22. Frederick Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art. (4th ed. Publisher Harry N Abrams, Inc. NY, 1994), 339.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Boeckle, Christine M. Images of Plague and Pestilence. Truman State University Press, 2000.

Carmichael, Ann G. Plague and the poor in Renaissance Florence. Cambridge Unv. Press, 1986.

Hartt, Frederick. History of Italian Renaissance Art. 4th ed. Publisher Harry N Abrams, Inc. NY, 1994.

Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. The Black Death: A Turning Point in History? Edited by William M. Bowsky. University of California, Davis, 1971.

Löffler, Klemens. "St. Sebastian." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 20 Nov. 2012 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13668a.htm>.

“Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken.” The Walter Art Museum.

http://art.thewalters.org/detail/6193/saint-sebastian-interceding-for-the-plague-stricken/

Welch, Evelyn. Art and Society in Italy 1350-1500. Oxford University Press, NY. 1997.

Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. Intext Publisher, 1969.

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