A creation of supreme refinement as well as dramatic intensity, this Saint Sebastian is the first northern European male nude of its scale and quality to enter the National Gallery of Art's sculpture collection.
Saint Sebastian, a Roman soldier martyred as a Christian, appears frequently in painting and sculpture from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. According to legend, he was bound to a tree and shot full of arrows (an ordeal he survived, only to be clubbed to death later). The affliction with arrows led to his veneration as a protector against the comparable agonies of the plague, but his story also allowed artists to demonstrate to connoisseurs their ability to display an ideal young male nude in a pose full of expressive tension. The sculptor of this version was evidently familiar with the pose in paintings by artists such as Hans von Aachen (1552 - 1615), whose Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian was widely known through an engraving by Jan Müller.  Such works correspond to the taste for elegant sophistication fostered by the court of Emperor Rudolf II (ruled 1576 - 1612) at Prague. 
The sculptor imagined the saint with a short but strongly articulated torso, muscular shoulders, expansive rib cage, narrow waist, and heavy buttocks, one of which had to be flattened in the wax model to permit attachment to a tree-shaped support. With one leg bent back, and the foot of the straight leg barely grazing the ground, the figure appears in almost weightless suspension. His face turns upward and his forehead wrinkles in an agony that searches the heavens for help. His long, fleecy curls, sinuously modeled, suggest the flow of melting wax.
This Sebastian, of which only one other cast is known,  must have been made for a connoisseur who would relish the fluid yet precise modeling of hair and beard, the sharp particularization of veins, muscles, and bones, and the careful individualization of flexed fingers and toes. These features, along with the facial type and the finely punched and fringed drapery, suggest an artist associated with the Dutch-born sculptor Hubert Gerhard, who was active in southern Germany. Comparisons have been made to Gerhard's male figures in the Resurrection relief on his gilded bronze altarpiece (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London) produced for Christoph Fugger of Augsburg in 1581 - 1584.  The face of Mars in Gerhard's small bronze Mars, Venus and Cupid (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) might also be cited.  An attribution has also been proposed to a Dutch contemporary of Gerhard, Hendrick de Keyser, with reference to a bronze Orpheus (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) convincingly attributed to him.  But De Keyser's other known bronze figures, which are generally fleshier, with fewer curls rendered in thicker spirals, differ from the Saint Sebastian, with its particularized, bony torso and its cascade of small, finely differentiated, rippling locks. A proposal has recently been made for an origin in Augsburg, a great south German center of goldsmith work, about 1620 or shortly thereafter.  A sculptor active there could have studied with Gerhard, as Saint Sebastian's face suggests; gained familiarity with the heroic naturalism of Adriaen de Vries; and encountered works of the short-lived but influential sculptor Georg Petel. Such knowledge would have been reinterpreted here with a goldsmith's precision and a baroque flair for expression.
(Text by Alison Luchs, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
1. This was observed by the author of the entry in European Sculpture and Works of Art (catalogue of the Sotheby's sale, London, 12 December 1991, lot 128), 128 - 129. For the Müller engraving see The Illustrated Bartsch (New York, 1980), 4:463, ref. no. 23 (old ref. no. 273).2. For a survey of art and taste in Rudolf's court, see Eliška Fucíková et al., eds., Rudolf II and Prague: The Court and the City [exh. cat., Prague Castle Administration] (Prague, 1997).3. Private collection; see An Exhibition of European Works of Art 1200-1800 [exh. cat., Trinity Fine Art at Harari & Johns, Ltd.] (London, 1992), 60 - 63, no. 27.4. See London 1992; for a colorplate of the Fugger altarpiece, see Paul Williamson, ed., <i>European Sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum</i> (London, 1996), 127.5. See Manfred Leithe-Jasper in Von allen Seiten schön: Bronzen der Renaissance und des Barock [exh. cat., Staatliche Museen zu Berlin] (Heidelberg, 1995), 461 - 462, no. 162. See also Leithe-Jasper in Renaissance Master Bronzes from the Collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna [exh. cat., Smithsonian Institution] (Washington, 1986), 264 - 266, no. 72.6. See London 1992 for this suggestion. Comparative illustrations are in Charles Avery, "Hendrick de Keyser as a Sculptor of Small Bronzes," Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 21 (April 1973), 3 - 24. The republication of this article in Charles Avery, Studies in European Sculpture (London, 1981), 175 - 187, lacks some essential illustrations.7. Suggestion by Dorothea Diemer on visit to the National Gallery of Art, 5 December 1998, recorded in the Gallery's curatorial files.
(sale, Sotheby's, London, 12 December 1991, no. 128); purchased by (Cyril Humphris, Ltd., London) for NGA.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.