Most of those who visit Venice do not go any further than the most popular sites such as St. Mark’s square or the Rialto Bridge area. I asked my friend Luca Simoncello (aka Luca Boerio), art expert, to point me out an highlight that is usually neglected which is an art treasure instead, worth more than just a visit.
The Church of Saint Sebastian in Venice by Luca Simoncello
We all lived that adolescent moment of rebellion when we felt obliged to go to Paris and stop for a moment before the tomb of Jim Morrison in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery, despite the fact that the place retains the burials of personalities larger than him such as Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Edith Piaf and Modigliani.
If one wanted to go to the sepulchres of the most famous Venetian painters he would realize that the burials of Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese are located inside real and unparalleled chests of art, far from the spots where massive tourism usually go.
If you are brave enough to abandon the obvious itineraries and you are not scared of getting lost, you may get to the church of Saint Sebastian.
Once there, from the bridge, you will see a simple, linear facade, which is a peaceful and sober example of the Italian Renaissance, while the interior supplies so much art to cause you a sort of indigestion.
Internally the Church has a single nave, ending with an apse and two side chapels. The walls of the nave are home to six private chapels. Despite its architectural simplicity, this church display several masterpieces in history of the art. The painter Paolo Veronese left his footprint everywhere, as if these walls were to be his artistic testament: the cycle of the Stories of Esther loom from the wooden ceiling, the decorative band, above the side chapels, displays frescoed prophets, while Gabriel and the Virgin Mary frame the perspective of the apse. Even the organ’s blinds are painted with a surprise effect that can hardly be seen: when closed they do only show a large painting depicting the Presentation to the Temple, while when open the subject is The Probatic Pool. There, under a modest plaque, rest the body of the painter, next to his brother.
The high walls of the church display a scenography of painted columns that frame frescoes portraying the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, such as the Saint pierced by the arrows and a group of archers, from below. Let’s stop and look at the large canvas placed on the right side of the apse: the work is dated to 1565, after the frescoes which are dated to 1558. Although the setting is the same, this painting is a public display of the wealth and magnificence of Venice. The aim here is not to celebrate the Saint but the city, its wealth and opulence. You can hardly see the naked body of the Saint, deprived of his armor, which is abandoned on the floor in isolation, due to a color that has little to do with the usual equipment of a soldier.
Saint Sebastian was in fact a legionary, but he also was Christian, thus subject to martyrdom. Legend has it that he was tied to a tree, killed by his own army mates forced to pierce his body with their arrows, for hours.
Veronese didn’t paint the solitude of the martyr and his agony, but the moment before his death, when he choose to stick to his faith. In fact his index finger points to the sky to the only one true God. Saint Sebastian is usually represented tied to a column or to tree, his body covered with several arrows bleeding abundantly, but very few are the painters who portrayed him before the martyrdom. Veronese depicts a Pulp outsider, isolated in the midst of a wealthy crowd: Saint Sebastian is naked while everyone else is sumptuously dressed, after choosing to have his own clothes stripped out of him, deprived of his status as a legionary, lose his civil identity, aiming to keep his religious integrity.
Today we would call him a fanatic, but we have always considered him a martyr and a saint.
Today we are the richly dressed ones, ready to indicate the naked one before us, the different one.
Today we are ready to point the finger, even if looking at the picture we think we are on the side of the martyr, but it is not so.
Differences frighten us as always and we point them out.
Today’s differences are gays, black or Arabs, but there was a time in history when WE were the difference. It is thanks to those who fought for their faith, or for their rights, and died for what they believed in, that we can show off rich clothes too, today.
This picture should remind us that every life has a value, every life makes sense, and nobody can be said to be better than another and that you have to fight for what you believe in.
St. Sebastian would say the same, I’m sure.
June is the month of Pride and if you stop and look close to this painting, you’ll find all the colors of the Rainbow.
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