Art History: Coping with the Black Death: Giovanni Del Biondo’s St Sebastian Altarpiece for Florence Cathedral
Coping with the Black Death:
Giovanni Del Biondo’s St Sebastian Altarpiece for Florence Cathedral
Presenter: Louise Marshall
Giovanni del Biondo’s St Sebastian altarpiece for Florence Cathedral, painted shortly after the city’s third outbreak of bubonic plague in 1374, is an innovative but under appreciated retooling of the Roman martyr’s relatively generic hagiography—a function of his adoption as a plague protector centuries after the composition of his fifth-century Passio—in the wake of the Black Death. One of only three surviving cycles of the saint’s life from the second half of the fourteenth century, it is the earliest known narrative altarpiece of Sebastian’s martyrdom by arrows, here made the hinge around which all else revolves. In his famous study of painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death, Millard Meiss called attention to the scores of arrows piercing Sebastian as exemplifying the period’s morbid and pessimistic mentality, seeing the saint as “a relentlessly tortured figure, blood dripping from more than 30 wounds.” Giovanni’s Sebastian is indeed a saint under siege, his body almost entirely covered with arrows. These are embedded deep, some entirely skewering him through and through, their tips sharp against the gold ground or burrowing through his arm to graze his torso, as if intent on further injury.
Yet while Meiss’ observations are valid, his conclusions are not. My paper investigates the strategies by which Giovanni builds drama and draws in the beholder with sharply observed naturalistic detail of weaponry, physiognomy and costume, and demonstrates the meaning of Sebastian’s wounded and bleeding body for Trecento worshippers as a promise of salvation from the plague. Also examined is the cycle’s final scene, representing Sebastian halting an epidemic. The genesis of Sebastian’s cult as a plague protector and the template for all subsequent appeals for his aid, this famous posthumous miracle was nonetheless almost never represented. Giovanni’s version, the earliest known, is telling in the way it rewrites a key element of the original story, shedding light on contemporary fears and uncertainties in the face of the plague, and the coping strategies devised in response. The paper concludes with an analysis of the scene’s brilliant pictorial rhetoric, charting a harrowing and highly affective journey through death and desolation to comfort and deliverance.
This event will be held online via Zoom.
Art History Seminar Programme going forward:
21 October – Yvette Hamilton, “Looking through a black hole: Photography at the limits.” & Nina Stromqvist,“Marja Helander, Christian Bumbarra Thompson and the ‘border’ in contemporary art from Scandinavia and Australia.”
4 November – Peter McNeil, “Fashion beyond clothing: the visual culture of Eurasian porcelain, glass and painted mirrors, 1500-1800”
11 November – Bruce Isaacs, “Literary and Cinematic Archi-Textualities: Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue”