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Ricardo Fernández Gracia, director of the Chair of Heritage and Art of Navarre.
San Sebastian, protector against the plague, in the cultural heritage of Navarre
Saint Sebastian was a Christian soldier of the Imperial Guard in the 3rd century. One of his companions denounced the young man's beliefs to an officer, who did not dare arrest him because of his high rank, although he put him on knowledge to the Emperor. The emperor - traditionally identified with Diocletian - sent for Sebastian and reproached him for his ingratitude in introducing a religion he considered harmful to the empire. Sebastian was not deterred and replied that no better service could be done than to convert his subjects to the religion of Christ. Irritated by this reply, he ordered him to be tied to a log and sawn to death. He was left for dead, and a holy woman, named Irene, went to bury him and found him alive, taking him home to dress his wounds. On hearing of this, the emperor ordered him to be taken to the circus and beaten to death.
Beliefs in the protection of the saints in transcendental moments of illness and death developed their role as intercessors and thaumaturges and were expressed in hagiographic texts and visual representations. The case of Saint Sebastian, as an advocate against the plague, is well illustrative, as would happen with Saint Roque from the 15th century onwards.
The origin of St. Sebastian's protection from the plague dates back to the year 680, when he freed Rome from a great epidemic, a fact reported by Paul Deacon in his Historia Longobardorum. At the time, it should be remembered that the plague coincided with a rain of arrows, both in classical sources - passage from the Iliad in which Apollo unleashes the plague with the shot of his arrow - and in biblical sources (Psalms 7 and 64). The Golden Legend contributed decisively to the diffusion of his cult and iconography. In its text it is affirmed that the saint was left as a hedgehog after his asaeteamiento. From the middle of the 14th century, on the occasion of the Black Death, his popularity grew enormously.
At the end of the Age average, he had become the martyr saint par excellence, with great notoriety throughout Europe. The parallels with Christ were glossed over, not only because of his relationship with the passage of Christ to the column or with the Ecce Homo -in the case of appearing with his arms forward-, but also because of the tree to which he was tied in analogy with the wood of the cross and because of the symbolic issue of his arrows. If these were three, they evoked the nails of Christ and in issue of five they evoked his wounds.
In Navarra he has three parishes under his patronage: Juarbe, Aramendía and Eulz and his hermitages are around a dozen between those existing and those that have disappeared (Allo, Arano, Arruazu, Asarta, Cascante, Cintruénigo, Gastiáin, Lacunza, Muniáin de la Solana, Olazagutía and Navarzato in Roncal). Regarding the confraternities, there were at least twenty-five, most of them in Tierra Estella.
Votes of Olite and Pamplona and patron saint of Sangüesa and Tafalla.
The municipal authorities of cities and towns made, since the Middle Ages, vows to the saints that were translated into promises to keep their feasts, in gratitude for the favors received. They were very frequent and some towns had several, as was the case in Pamplona and Sangüesa, with eight and six respectively.
One of the first documented vows to San Sebastian in Navarre is that of Olite, in 1413, as a result of the plague of that year. It was accompanied by the protective rite consisting of surrounding the perimeter of the town with a wick or blessed wick. Pamplona suffered a plague epidemic in 1599. Among the measures taken were those of subject religious. The municipal authorities undertook to keep abstinence on the eves of San Sebastian and San Fermin.
Some of those vows ended up in the patronage of some localities. In Tafalla, the legendary miracle of the beret of 1426 made its cult grow, with numerous donations coming through its confraternity. His famous stone image is attributed to the sculptor Johan Lome and for its realization left a command, in 1422, the royal secretary Sancho de Navaz.
On the origins of the feast and devotion to the saint in Tafalla are very interesting the data of the account book of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, studied by Beatriz Marcotegui. The celebration of his feast brought together, in the past, numerous devotees and merchants attracted by the sales of the annual fair. The cuestores or people who asked for alms for his cult were distributed, at the end of the Age average, by the dioceses of Pamplona, Tarazona and Bayonne.
The annual echo of the vow of Tafalla was linked to the procession of the walls, since, as in Olite, the perimeter of its walls was surrounded by a roll of wax carried on a platform. The devotional act was recovered in 1885, on the occasion of the cholera epidemic, adding five arrobas of wax to the wax roll, which was depleted, so that it would reach its original length.
An extensive and documented study on the patron saint of Sangüesa is due to Juan Cruz Labeaga. In 1543 the vow was already celebrated, prior to the great plagues of 1566 and 1599. The town council appointed the preacher of the feast and the annual procession was attended by all the guilds. Throughout the centuries great processions and rogations are documented, having him as a protector of the market gardeners and farmers.
Iconography: predominance of the martyr figure
The artistic representations of Saint Sebastian are very abundant in Navarre, the most usual being those that present him as a young, naked, beardless boy tied to the trunk of a tree or a column. The very position of the martyr allowed the artists to study the human body strained by a forced position, as well as to express everything related to pain, agony and ecstasy.
From the Gothic period or with the imprint of its aesthetics, some sculptures are preserved. To the head the image in polychrome alabaster of the cathedral of Tudela, work attributed by C. Lacarra and S. Janke to the master Hans Piet d'Anso or Hans de Suabia, sculptor of the altarpiece of the Seo of Zaragoza and resident in that city between 1467 and 1478. Heirs of the Gothic aesthetics we find some images in Navarre around 1500, among which those of Muniáin de la Solana, Asarta and Villafranca stand out.
Sculptures and reliefs of the saint in the Comunidad Foral multiplied throughout the 16th century. There is no doubt that the model of the naked young man lent itself to recreate the human body, even if it was suffering, in the context of Renaissance humanism. Its representation was an excellent excuse for many masters to show a nude male Anatomy without fear of ecclesiastical censorship, in times when decorum was a rule and artistic principle.
The examples of Abaigar, Piedramillera, Torralba del Río, among others, belong to the First Renaissance of expressive style. The imprint of Gabriel Joly's workshop is noticeable in the delicate sculpture of Fitero, from the middle of the century, which presents a forced posture and Anatomy of very soft modeling. A little more advanced in time and form are the examples of Huarte-Araquil and Irañeta, due to Juan de Beauves and Pierres Picart, respectively.
Romanism, with its taste for foreshortening and imitation of Michelangelo's art, found a special occasion in the nude figure of the saint. Bernabé Imberto in Andosilla (1598), Juan de Troas in Lezarza (c. 1600), Juan de Gastelúzar in Zabaldica (1614) or Juan Imberto in Salinas de Oro (1576-82) left good examples. The lengthening of the canon and the anatomical study are protagonists in the sculptures of Caparroso and Burgui. Many other carvings belong to the 17th century, in general without the genius of those of the previous century. Among them are those of Esparza de Salazar y Lacunza (Gaspar Ramos, 1627 and 1637), Maya (Juan de Huici, 1635) and Pamplona Cathedral (Francisco Jiménez Bazcardo, 1682). In the baroque painting with the saint in solitary stands out a tenebrist canvas, copy of Ribera, of the Capuchinas de Tudela.
The martyr scene
On some occasions the isolated figure is accompanied by executioners with bows and even crossbows. Among the earliest examples is the panel of the altarpiece of San Sebastián and San Nicasio (1402) of San Miguel de Estella -currently in the National Archaeological Museum-. The saint, with numerous darts, following the text of the Golden Legend, appears tied to a column with two executioners and other characters. The same passage is narrated in the altarpiece of Barillas, a work attributed by Alberto Aceldegui to Nicolás Zahortiga (doc.1443-1485), and also appeared in the disappeared altarpiece of San Sebastián and Santa Ana of Cintruénigo, from the last third of the 15th century, studied by the same researcher.
In the altarpiece of his dedication of Imbuluzqueta we find the passage of his martyrdom with great compositional complexity. It is a panel from the second third of the 16th century, which has been related to the workshop of Ramón Oscáriz. Like other works, including the panel by Pedro García de Benabarre in the Prado Museum (c.1470), we find the emperor with crown and scepter witnessing the scene. The composition is completed with numerous characters and backgrounds of landscape and architecture, which evidence the copy of Raphaelesque prints. The plastic art presents the topic in the Renaissance altarpieces of Arre, Ciriza and Etayo, while in Seventeenth-century painting we find it in the monastery of Fitero and in San Pedro de Olite.
Some reliefs and, especially paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries, usually show the martyrdom at different moments, in its preliminaries, with the saint in great pain and sometimes at the moment when he entrusts himself to God. All this led the artists to create strong contrasts of light between the figure and the landscape in the background, thus accentuating the drama of the scene. In a canvas of the old altarpiece of San Pedro de la Rúa de Estella, work of Pedro de Ibiricu (1687), two "sayones" are preparing to bind the saint in preparation for the asaeteamiento.
In some baroque paintings he is accompanied by angels that assist or comfort him. In a couple of canvases of the Poor Clares of Estella and the altarpiece of Améscoa leave the engraving of Paul Pontius is copied that reproduces a work of Rubens. In the altarpiece of the saint of Acedo and in a canvas of Villafranca that copies a print of Tomás de Leu by painting of Jacobo de Palma, the angel brings him the reward of victory in the form of palm and crown, attributes of the martyrs.
Other representations, passages of his life and the saint as a knight
On some occasions it forms a pair with Saint Fabian, as both share the same day of January 20 for their feast. With the holy pope we find him in the predella of the Gothic altarpiece of San Salvador de Sangüesa and in a relief of the altarpiece of Imarcoain, work of Juan de Gastelúzar, from the beginning of the XVII century. In some 16th century altarpieces he was associated with San Miguel, as in the one in Burlada -today in the Museum of Navarre-, work of Juan del Bosque (1540-1546) and in the one in Cizur Mayor, by Juan de Bustamante (1538). In both cases he is represented as a knight.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Fair Love of his invocation in Cintruénigo was presided over by an altarpiece from the last third of the 15th century, which no longer exists. It shared the title with Santa Ana and presented two moments of his life: the saint before the emperor and the asaeteamiento with memories of the same topic of the altarpiece of Barillas. Other narrative passages of his life are infrequent. In the altarpiece dedicated to him in Andosilla we find two scenes: the arrest of some soldiers at position and the saint distributing alms.
The social category of San Sebastian, as a military man, made that in the Age average he acquired dyes of knight, so it was spread an iconographic model with luxurious clothes and a rich necklace hanging from his neck. In an altarpiece from San Miguel de Estella, today in the National Archaeological Museum, we find him as a palatine nobleman, with a sword in one hand and arrows in the other. It shares ownership with San Nicasio, who enjoyed popularity in Navarre and devotion on the part of its monarchs. The altarpiece belongs to the International Gothic period and was commissioned, along with that of Santa Elena, preserved in situ, by Martín Pérez de Eulate in 1402 for his funeral chapel.
In the door of San José of the cathedral of Pamplona, a work from the first half of the 15th century, he appears as a knight. To the second half of the same century belongs a panel from a collection of Corella and Aragonese affiliation, which Altadill believed to be a portrait of the Prince of Viana with signs of sanctity, but which must be identified with San Sebastián. In the aforementioned altarpiece of Cintruénigo, from the last third of the 15th century, he also appeared as a knight. In Artajona there is a sculpture from the beginning of the 16th century with the same characteristics.
The Arrese de Corella collection holds a panel from Vierlas (Zaragoza) from the early 16th century, in which he is richly dressed and adorned with a double chain hanging on his chest, carrying a huge bow and arrow, like a maiden ready for hunting. The piece is related to Aragonese works of the time.
In the sumptuary arts
Medals, prints, scapulars, pinjantes and reliquaries with his image also cooperated, from the sumptuary arts, to promote his devotion and cult. In various collections in Navarre there are some remarkable pieces. The Augustinian Recollect Nuns keep a multiple reliquary from the beginning of the 18th century, with its central figure in ivory, which has been studied by Pilar Andueza. A small sculpture of Sicilian coral on a silver filigree base, from the first half of the 17th century, has been published by Ignacio Miguéliz, and a heart-shaped enamel from the end of that century is of special singularity, highlighting the vividness of its coloring.As for the silver reliquaries, the one of subject romano de Sangüesa, sent by Don Fermín de Lubián, son of the city and prior of the cathedral of Pamplona, stands out in 1759. Among the devotional prints we must mention one of the saint of Tafalla wearing a helmet and surrounded by military harnesses, from the beginning of the 18th century.