About this artwork

The treatment of this subject is unusual, because St Sebastian is commonly depicted pierced with arrows. According to legend, he was a member of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s imperial guard who was condemned to death for being a Christian. Here Van Dyck did not depict the martyrdom itself, but the moment before this, when the saint was being prepared for his grisly end. The artist painted several versions of the subject around 1620-21. In this version, the athletic youth stands out from the other figures, his heavenward gaze emphasised by the dramatic red drapery. The painting has recently been conserved.

Sir Anthony van Dyck

Sir Anthony van Dyck

Van Dyck is perhaps most famous for the grand and elegant portraits he painted of the British aristocracy when he was court painter to King Charles I. He trained in Antwerp, and worked in Rubens’s studio as an assistant. His outstanding talents were recognised and encouraged by Rubens, who described him as his ‘best pupil’. Van Dyck developed his sumptuous portrait style during time spent in Italy, but also painted impressive religious, allegorical and mythical works. After returning to Antwerp for several years, Van Dyck moved to London in 1632, having accepted the King’s invitation to work for him, and remained there for the rest of his short but influential career.