The painting recently underwent an extensive restoration treatment. This was also an opportunity to examine the painting from a material perspective.
The painting’s subject – Saint Sebastian being released by the Roman widow Irene and her servant –refers to the story of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s (c. 243-316) bodyguard, Sebastian, who was sentenced to death for professing his Christian faith. He miraculously survived being shot by arrows. The scene depicting Irene was popular in the 17th century because it symbolised Christian charity and emphasised the role of women as carers, as prioritised during the Counter Reformation.
At the same time, the tableau’s significance is also linked to the powers later ascribed to Sebastian. He became a saint to whom people prayed for protection against the plague. We see this, for example, in the suggestion of a convulsion and his discoloured limbs – two symptoms of the disease – and the unusual sky in the background. This might allude to the menacing natural phenomena that people associated with the plague in the 17th century. In the 1620s, the period when this painting must have been created, Europe – including Ghent – suffered multiple outbreaks of the deadly disease.