The painting from the National Gallery Collection in London was made as an altarpiece for a family chapel in the Franciscan Church at Fabriano in the Italian Marche region in 1491. In the centre are the Virgin and Child. Mary is seated on an ornate marble throne over which a rich cloth has been carefully draped. This orange backdrop sets off the deep blue mantle that she wears. You can almost feel the softness of the cloth and the hard reflective surface of the columns. There is a lily on her right and a rose on her left. Both flowers are symbols of the Virgin. St Francis is on the left, and St Sebastian is on the right. the central fold in the cloth traces the centre line of the painting. It is all so carefully balanced and each element is in perfect harmony with the rest. But, rather oddly, someone has left some produce lying around. There is a pear on the left and, hanging beneath it, what looks to me like a peach, although, it might be an apple. There is another similar fruit on the right hand side and hanging beneath this is what looks to me like a cucumber. On the floor beneath the throne plucked flowers have been scattered. These are no accident. These are Crivelli’s trademarks. Each had a symbolic meaning, even if that meaning is lost on us.
However, the snail at the bottom is probably just a snail. It might just be Crivelli’s way of showing what he can do. The viewer must decide if is painted or if really there on the surface. Crivelli was at he height of his career. He could demand large sums of money for his work. Now, notice the tiny woman beneath St Francis. The skirt of his habit almost enfolds her as she kneels before the virgin.
Her name was Oradea Becchetti. She is dressed in black because she is a widow. In her husband’s will he asked for the chapel to be founded. However, is not going to be defined by him. She wants posterity to know that she paid for this work with her money and that she paid quite a bit for it. The inscription at the base of the throne can be translated as “at no small expense and of her own money”. Although pious there is nothing meek or mild about her expression. She looks tough. In terms of Italian religious art in the 1400’s, Oradea is as remarkable and as unusual as the hanging cucumber. St Francis is there to present her to the Virgin and Child in Heaven. Clearly, she choose him to be there. He is an obvious choice, given the location of the work. But Oradea invited St Sebastian along also. The reason for his presence, shot through, as he is, with at least a dozen arrows, is rather less obvious.
The reason why images of St Sebastian with arrows are to be found in almost every art gallery across Europe is because St Sebastian was one of the great plague saints. The Black Death, or bubonic plague, hit Europe in 1347. Although it eventually subsided, localised outbreaks continued every ten or twenty years for centuries. It became a fact of life. In fact, the Marche region had just come through a series of outbreaks in the late 1400’s. there was little that people could do except pray that they would be spared. Wealthy families such as the Bechetti commissioned works for Churches and side chapels that included a saint whom they believed might intercede or even offer protection. St Sebastian was one of saints most commonly invoked, despite the fact that in this life he had no connection with the plague. He was Roman soldier from Narbonne who was stationed in Rome in the Emperor’s guard in the Third Century. He was a Christian and was accredited with conversions and with healing miracles. Condemned to death for his faith, he was tied him to a tree truck and shot through with a great many arrows. He was left for dead, but he survived. When he had recovered, he publicly berated the Emperors’ maltreatment of Christians (There were two Emperors at the time). This time he was clubbed to death and his body was thrown into the Tiber. Among Roman martyrs he was ranked as third after Peter and Paul. But the element of the story which gave him the greatest status was the miraculous way he recovered from being shot by arrows. It was as if he had returned from death as did Christ. Artists focused on this part of his story. The tried to present him as looking like Christ in the Passion. He is usually shown pierced through with arrows because Christ also was pierced, not by arrows, but by a spear. He is shown only in a loin cloth, not simply so that an artist could show off their skill with anatomy, but because Christ too was stripped. Notice that in this painting St Sebastian is tied to a column in place of a tree trunk. In this way the saint’s suffering is linked to Christ’s flagellation. And yet he doesn’t show any expression of pain. This again is how Christ was often presented. His calmness and serenity reflect both the martyr’s grace of being able to endure suffering and the peaceful heavenly repose wherein he now lives.
The arrows are worth thinking about. In fact, they were well established symbols of plague in both Jewish and pagan antiquity. But the one sending the arrow is usually an angry God in heaven. There is a famous image by Benozzo Gozolli from the Church of San’ Agostino in San Gimignano which dates from the 1460’s doing the rounds at the moment. In it St Sebastian spreads his cloak to protect the populace from a shower of arrows raining down from the sky. In fact, what is most unusual about this image is that it is St Sebastian and not Our Lady who spreads the cloak to protect people. I find it quite interesting that currently this image is most often cropped. They leave out the angry God in the heavens and his team of assisting angels. The full image can be seen above. We don’t blame God for the current pandemic. But to understand these works you have to understand that Italians in the 1400’s didn’t blame God either. They blamed themselves. Generally, it was understood to be a consequence of sin. I certainly am not saying that our sinfulness today has brought on the virus, but at the same time, there is much to ponder about how we have been living. I don’t mean sin, but I am thinking of the many ways in which we have made ourselves vulnerable.
In Crivelli’s painting there is a broken arrow on the ground. It is as if someone had intercepted it and broken it before it could do any harm. One role of the plague saint was to deflect the arrow. But there is a deeper aspect. Although innocent (as was Christ), St Sebastian takes the arrows into his own body. He suffers in the place of those who have sinned, which, of course, echoes the Song of the Suffering Servant from Isaiah. Moreover St Sebastian is presented as calmly enduring his suffering. He is like the lamb led to the slaughter, opening not his mouth. As I say above, this serenity is a sign of his closeness to Christ in his martyrdom.
St Francis was also linked to the Passion by his stigmata. Here he shows the wound in his side. Both these saints suffered as did Christ and as a result it would be understood that they could plead all the more effectively.
So here we have this unusual and quite complex painting from a very talented but quite unusual artist. And yet, viewed from where we stand, it is quite simple to understand. We see a woman’s prayer for herself, her dead husband and her people in a time of plague. We see her perhaps long-delayed self-assertion as a woman too in her expression. It is worth mentioning that he Chapel was dedicated to Our Lady of Consolation and the little widow has a rosary beads in her hands. Now in our time, surely we can join her and say, St Sebastian, St Francis and Our Lady pray for us.
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