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Saint Sebastian

Photograph by Peter Geoffrion, copyright 2010 by the Nasher Musem of Art at Duke University

Saint Sebastian

Culture: German, Bavarian
Date: 1500–1525
Medium: Limewood with traces of pigment
Dimensions:
37 x 11 3/8 x 8 inches (94 x 28.9 x 20.3 cm)
Classification: Sculpture
Credit Line: The Brummer Collection
Label Text:As a fine example of late medieval sculpture from the Brummer Collection of Medieval Art at the Nasher Museum of Art, this figure of Saint Sebastian was once part of a large altarpiece that was likely in a liturgical space. The sculptor has created a content and attentive figure, which smiles slightly and rests his hands in crooks of a tree. The tree, which is actually a sapling, tells us that this is an image of Saint Sebastian, who was a roman soldier killed on order of the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 287 CE. Although it seems unusual to see a depiction of the saint without his body pierced through with arrows, this alternative iconography refers to the tree upon which he was hung and was typically the way the saint was depicted prior to the sixteenth century. Already by 1500, this was an old fashioned image of the saint, and was likely a response to local traditions in the region of southwestern Germany in which it was carved.

The figure is dressed in the polygonal cap and heavy cloak of a middle class city dweller of the early sixteenth century. The fashion of his haircut is consistent with the first quarter of the century; men's hair was cut shorter as the century progressed. But what localizes this sculpture most of all is the material of which it is made. Limewood sculpture was produced exclusively in the area around present day Ulm and Augsburg, in the historical region of Swabia. Wood from the lime tree was easier to carve than both oak and nutwood, which were the materials of choice in regions of northern Germany, the Low Countries, and to a lesser extent, in France. So accessible was the wood of the lime tree that an important market developed in the production of sculpted figures for retables (tableau-like altarpieces) for both churches and private homes. Sculptures were made en masse and shipped to various destinations and were available both on-spec and by specific commission. If the buyer preferred, the sculpture was painted realistically, as was once the case for this figure.

Provenance: Ernest [1890-1964] or Joseph [1883-1947] Brummer; by inheritance to Ernest's wife, Ella Brummer; purchased 1966 by Duke University Museum of Art, now Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.
Object number: 1966.61.1