Since 2010 I have been using this site to discuss my interpretations of famous Renaissance paintings including Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione", and Michelangelo's"Doni Tondo." The full papers can now be found at

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Giorgione: "Boy with an Arrow" or St. Sebastian

In earlier posts I have agreed with those who have claimed that the small painting by Giorgione called “Boy with an Arrow” is an image of St. Sebastian, one of the most popular male saints of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. For almost 1000 years the third century martyr had been recognized as a protector against the plague. During the Renaissance his popularity was especially great in Venice and the Adriatic coast because of the frequent occurrences of plague.

Giorgione: Boy with an Arrow
Oil on wood, 48 x 42 cm
c. 1506
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

In one of my first posts at Giorgione et al… I pointed to the great similarity between Giorgione’s “Boy with an Arrow” and Raphael’s earlier depiction of the saint. Both showed a soulful looking young man with head tilted to one side and holding one arrow in his hand. Both artists departed from the traditional version of a partially nude man tied to a tree or column riddled with arrows, symbols of the plague.

Raphael: St. Sebastian
Oil on wood, 43 X 34 cm
Accademia Carrara, Bergamo

Giovanni Antonio Beltraffio, a follower of Leonardo da Vinci’s in Milan, also produced a number of half-length versions of St. Sebastian that antedate the work of Giorgione and Raphael. He also depicted a soulful fully clothed young man holding one arrow in his hand. His saint has a halo.
There is no mistaking the subject of Raphael’s or Beltraffio’s versions of St. Sebastian. 

Beltraffio: St. Sebastian
Oil on canvas, 48 x 36 cm
Pushkin Museum, Moscow

Characteristically, Giorgione departed from using traditional iconographical symbols like the halo. He did keep the arrow but in another post I argued that he used color to identify the young man. His tunic is red, the color associated with martyrs in the liturgy of the Mass.

Anyone looking at Giorgione’s painting side-by-side with Raphael’s and Beltraffio’s would be hard pressed not to see the saint in the “Boy”. The small size of the three paintings would indicate that they were all made for private devotion. There must have been a real market in the days of recurring plague. Beltraffio made a number of depictions and we know that one Venetian patrician had two copies of the Giorgione in his possession.

Scholars do not like to recognize Giorgione’s “Boy with an Arrow” as St. Sebastian. They have proposed divine figures like Apollo and Eros. I have come to believe that, more than anything else, the facial expressions in these three paintings indicate a martyr. In the account of the persecution and death of St. Stephen, the first martyr, the face of the young man about to be martyred appeared to his accusers like the face of an angel.  Here are the words of the Latin Vulgate, 6:15.

Et intuentes eum omnes qui sedebant in concilio viderunt faciem eius tamquam faciem angeli.
And all that sat in the council, looking on him, saw his face as if it had been the face of an angel.

Note: I wrote this post in part to commemorate the third anniversary of the death of my blogging friend Hasan Niyazi who passed away suddenly and tragically alone in his new apartment late in October, 2013. Hasan was the son of a Moslem family that had migrated from Cyprus to Australia when he was a child. Like the children of many traditional immigrants he broke away from the traditional religion of his family and became an avowed secularist. Somehow, he developed a passion for the art of the Italian Renaissance, especially for Raphael.

He was obviously an outsider in every respect and so turned to blogging. His blog, Three Pipe Problem, quickly became a web sensation. To his passion for art, he added his scientific background, as well as technical proficiency in mastering blogging technology. Through social media he developed so many friends and contacts that he became a kind of sun around which they orbited.

I first met him on the web in 2010 when Three Pipe Problem was just beginning to make traction. In the next three years he went from an obscure blogger to a presence in the art history world. Six months before his death he wrote me about his plans.

I am increasingly busy. I have a few interviews coming up, including one with a prominent Florentine restorer, Dr Goldberg and some other scholars. Work on Raphael continues and many other things in the offing. My blog received its millionth viewing the other week, which was pleasant - and I hope to commemorate it with a prize in the near future. I have started learning Italian, and am also still working as a clinician. Blogging has become more than a curious pastime, yet there is still no easy way to make it viable financially, so I must continue in my dual mode! (4/18/2013)

Then, like his beloved Raphael and my beloved Giorgione he was gone in his mid-thirties. He may not have had the face of a Renaissance angel and I don’t know what arrow took his life, but I will always think of him when looking at the above paintings.

Hasan Niyazi in Florence