The Martydom of Saint Sebastian
Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi dit Donatello
Florence, around 1386 - Florence, 1466
Around 1460, bronze, 26 x 24 cm
Italian Museum – Sculpture Gallery
This small bas-relief in bronze by Donatello represents The martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. Condemned by the Emperor Diocletian to be run through with arrows for having converted to Christianity, here the saint is tied to a pillar. The extension of his body makes the muscles of the arms and torso and the ribs prominent, under a smooth relief. To the right, two archers bend their bows, while in the background, an angel clad in a long cloth holds the palm of the martyr.
On a bare background, Donatello masters the space with very few elements: he indicates the perspective with the deformation of the column, and he suggests the depth through the difference in scale of the people.
This gilt bronze plaque was famous before entering the collection of Edouard André, where it was immediately recognised as the work of Donatello, the greatest sculptor of the Italian Renaissance. For the basilica of Padua, he created bas-reliefs on which he simulated the perspective and the depth of the planes by using a thickness of just a few millimetres. The same means were used here. But it is not the technical prowess that is the most surprising, but rather the feeling of tragedy that it makes possible.