National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS

Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ

Scenes of Martyrdom

Paintings of martyred saints were also popular during the early seventeenth century. These compelling and often gruesome images of religious suffering provided examples of those who had sacrificed their lives for their Christian faith. Jusepe de Ribera’s Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (1634) focuses on the saint’s final moments. One of Christ’s first apostles, he was condemned to death after destroying pagan temples and idols. He looks up to heaven as if seeking the support and strength of God, while the executioner sharpens his knife before skinning the saint alive. In the background are two figures, possibly the pagan priest who condemned him and the soldier who captured him. Bartholomew’s body is lit by a bright, unrelenting light, which defines the forms of his muscles and the texture of his wrinkled skin, reminding the viewer of his imminent torture. The light could also be seen as a metaphor for the light of God: the saint looks toward the source of the light as if it were the agent of divine inspiration and salvation.

Similar expressions of piety and ecstasy are found in Tanzio da Varallo’s painting of Saint Sebastian, 1620-1630. An officer of the Praetorian guard, Sebastian was condemned to death by the Emperor Diocletian when the secret of his Christianity was discovered. He was shot with arrows and left to die, but was discovered by Irene, the widow of a Christian martyr, who washed his wounds and nursed him back to health. Sebastian would later be clubbed to death, but the arrow remained the symbol of his martyrdom. The painting shows Irene supporting Sebastian’s body, while an angel carefully extracts an arrow from his chest. Early accounts of Sebastian’s legend omitted this episode, but it became increasingly popular in seventeenth-century paintings. Not only did Irene’s good deed provide a model of charity, her physical proximity to the suffering of a martyred saint also made her an ideal subject for mystical contemplation.

Brochure Images | Exhibition Information
Lost and Found | The Taking of Christ | Caravaggio and His Followers
The Counter-Reformation | The Penitent Sinner | Scenes of Martyrdom
Dreams and Visions | Secular Subjects and Sinners