Italian Paintings – The Madonna Of St. Sebastian

Dresden can boast of the best work of Raphael in the north of Europe, and Dresden also has the finest Correggios. There are five in all, bought by Augustus the Third, Elector of Saxony. They originally belonged to the Duke of Modena. Augustus was physically a splendid specimen of humanity, as all who have seen his portraits and the arms he wore will attest. He also loved and appreciated pictures and all works of art as no other did in his time. He therefore, notwithstanding his treasury was exhausted, and his people protesting at his extravagance, went on buying these things.

He gave his goldsmith carte blanche to make those wonderful things we see in the Green Vaults.

Perhaps we, too, might have stood aghast when he exchanged a regiment of Dragoons for thirteen Chinese vases. These can be seen in the Museum Johanneum.

Augustus was a bad sovereign and a bad general, but he founded the first museum of Europe, which was the chief glory of his little capitol, and which is its pride and crowning glory today.

The five Correggios are the Madonna of St. George, the Madonna of St. Sebastian, the Holy Night, the Madonna of St. Francis, and the Reading Magdalene. The first four hang side by side.

In the Madonna of St. Sebastian, the Virgin is in the midst of what is called “a glory;” she is surrounded by a choir of celestial spirits. Three saints worship her on the earth. In the center is St. Geminianus, who was Bishop of Modena in the 5th century. He holds in his hand the model of a church he built in Modena. He performed many wonderful miracles. In the 35th chapter of Gibbon is the story of his going to Constantinople to heal the daughter of the Emperor, the Princess Honoria, who was possessed of an evil spirit. When Attila the Hun was moving down on Modena to destroy it, it was spared through the intercession of St. Geminianus.

Before the unification of Italy the coins of Modena were stamped with his image.

At the left stands St. Sebastian bound to a tree and shot with arrows.

St. Sebastian was in the old days, and is now, the favorite saint of the Roman women.

He is the patron saint against plague and pestilence. He was born in Narbonne in Gaul of noble parents. He was handsome and brave. He was quite young when he was made captain of a company in the Praetorian Guards. He had all the qualities which go to make up the ideal soldier, and soon attracted the attention of the Emperor Diocletian, with whom he became an especial favorite. Sebastian was a Christian from his youth up, but secretly; to let it be known meant death. By keeping it a secret, he could work among his fellow soldiers with whom he was immensely popular. He made many converts to the new faith, among them his intimate friends, Marcus and Marcellinus. It was discovered that they had become Christians, and they were imprisoned and tortured. This they bore with fortitude. They were condemned to death. As they were led out to execution their wives, children and parents gathered around them and with tears in their eyes begged them to recant. Just as they were about to give up, Sebastian, who had been watching, rushed forward and encouraged them to stand by their faith, to die rather than deny their Saviour.

So great was the eloquence of Sebastian that the Judge, the family of the condemned, and others listening were converted.

Marcus and Marcellinus were set free, but soon after were put to cruel death. Then Sebastian was arrested. The Emperor sent for him, offered him promotion, everything, if he would only renounce Christianity.

But Sebastian stood firm, not in the least moved by any of the Emperor’s dazzling offers. At last, Diocletian very angry with him, ordered that he should be bound to a tree and shot to death with arrows. This was done, and the archers left him, as they thought, dead. Irene, the widow of Marcellinus, with others of the Christians, came at night to take the body and bury it. They found that he still breathed, the arrows had not touched a vital part. Irene took him to her own home and nursed him back to life. Then his friends begged him to leave Rome, but he refused. He went straight to the palace, and stood by the gate through which the Emperor must pass on his way to the Forum. When Diocletian came out and looked at Sebastian he was badly shaken up, as may be imagined. His amazement soon turned to fury, and he ordered his men to seize Sebastian, take him to the Circus and beat him to death with clubs, and in order that he be entirely out of the way, ordered his body thrown into the Cloaca Maxima, the great sewer, built by Tarquin the Proud five hundred years before Christ, and which is in use today.

This was done, but his body lodged on some obstruction in the sewer, and was taken out by a Christian woman and buried in the catacombs. Out on the Appian Way is the church of St. Sebastian, which was built over this spot. Going through the catacombs you can see the place where St. Sebastian was buried, and near by him his friends Marcus and Marcellinus.

A recumbent marble statue of St. Sebastian by Bernini is under the high altar in the church.

The reason St. Sebastian is prayed to in times of pestilence is because of the association of the arrow with the plague. In the Trojan war, Chryses, the priest of Apollo, went to Agamemnon to beg him to ransom his daughter Chryseis, whom he had taken captive. Agamemnon wrathfully refused, and sent the old man away with bitter words. Chryses prayed to the Archer God to avenge his insult to his priest, and Apollo sent the arrows of the pestilence far and wide into the Grecian camp.

St. Roch was born in France of noble parents. He was not quite twenty when his parents died. They left him vast estates. He followed the advice of Christ to the rich young man, sold all his possessions and gave the money to the poor and to hospitals. He then started on foot to Rome in the dress of a pilgrim. Before he reached there he came upon a plague-stricken city. He offered his services in the hospital. He was strangely successful in his ministrations. It seemed as if some peculiar blessing rested on his work. He was young and handsome, so naturally the people thought him an angel. He stopped at two other places where there was plague and attended the sick. When he reached Rome he found it also in the midst of a terrible pestilence. Here he devoted himself to the care of the most hopeless cases. The sick were healed by his prayers or by the sign of the cross, which he made as he stood over them. He left Rome and traveled from city to city, wherever there was pestilence. At last he came to Piacenza, where a frightful epidemic had broken out. One night he sank down, overcome by fatigue and loss of sleep. When he awakened he found himself plague stricken. The pain was so great that he cried aloud. Fearing to disturb those in the hospital, he crawled into the street. The guard would not allow him to stay there, lest he spread the plague, so he crawled outside of the city gate into the edge of a wood, and laid him down as he thought to die ; but an angel came and ministered unto him. When he recovered sufficiently to travel he decided to go to his home. When he arrived he was so changed no one knew him. He was arrested as a spy. The judge, his own uncle, looked at him without knowing him and sent him to prison. St. Roch, believing this to be the will of God, held his peace, told no one who he was. He stayed in prison five years. The jailer entering his cell one morning was astonished and dazzled by a supernatural light which filled the dungeon. His prisoner lay dead, and by his side a writing revealing his name, and these words : “All who are stricken by the plague and who pray for aid through the merits and intercession of Roch, the servant of God, shall be healed.” The judge, when he saw this paper, wept and was filled with remorse. St. Roch was given honorable burial amid the presence and prayers of the whole city.

There would be an impropriety in representing St. Roch sleeping in the presence of the Virgin, were it not that the legend says he was healed while he slept.

The brotherhoods instituted in most of the towns of Italy and Germany for attending the sick and plague-stricken in time of public calamity were placed under the protection of the Virgin of Mercy, St. Roch and St. Sebastian.

Toward the close of the fifteenth century the Venetians, who were always in danger of the plague because of their commercial inter-course with the East, determined to send men to Montpelier, France, to get the relics of St. Roch, so that they might be forever immune from the plague. The senate appointed men to undertake this. They went disguised as pilgrims and succeeded in getting the sacred remains. On their return they were received with great honor by the Doge and by all Venice. This was in 1485. One of the most powerful branches of the brotherhood already existed in Venice. It was called the Scuola di San Rocco.

The word Scuola can only be translated by the one word school, but these scuole were not institutions of learning, but charitable associations for the care of the sick, the burial of the dead, and the release of captives from the infidel.

The splendid church of San Rocco was built to receive the relics of the saint and near it was built what we would call the guild hall of the Scuola di San Rocco. There were five of these scuole in Venice, but that of St. Roch was the richest and most powerful. From Doge Antonio Grimani to the fall of the Republic, all the Doges were enrolled in the brother-hood of St. Roch. Its riches were so great it sometimes loaned money to the state in times of urgency or depression. On the 16th of August, every year, the Doge came in solemn state to implore St. Roch to avert the plague from the Republic. This is a votive picture. The presence of St. Roch and St. Sebastian determines this, and the introduction of St. Geminianus, the patron of Modena, shows that the picture was painted for that city, which was destroyed by pestilence in 1512. The date on the picture is 1515.