Paolo Veronese, Saints Mark and Marcellian Taken to their Martyrdom

Oil on canvas
Church of St. Sebastian, Venice, Italy

The painting is for the most part quite faithful to the Golden Legend's account of St. Sebastian's encouragement of the young martyrs-to-be. In his gleaming armor he stand dramatically in the center of the scene and urges them to ignore the "blandishing words of women" who want them to recant and save their lives.

Grouped around Sebastian and the youths are all the family members mentioned in the Legend. The mother on the left extends her arms in supplication, "showing her paps" – or as much of them as might be fitting in the presbytery of a church. The gray-bearded father on the right is "brought between two servants." On the lower steps are "the two wives of these two sons, which bare in their arms their children."

Above this central group is the "youngling clad with a white mantle" who appeared with the message, "Thou shalt be alway with me." Seeing this, the Legend says the jailer's wife "fell down to his [Sebastian's] feet, and by signs of her hands made prayers to him." That would be the woman kneeling in the purple dress.

Veronese makes a few changes that heighten the drama. One is to set the episode outdoors on the steps of the prison. The Legend and other narratives put it inside the prison during the thirty days that the men were given to think it over. After this episode the narratives add several miracles and conversions that take place during the thirty days.

The artist also adds a young man behind Sebastian holding a staff with a vexillum flying dramatically in the wind, a visual echo of Sebastian's gesture and a clever way of getting a cross into the picture. In a more poignant echo, a monkey standing behind the mother extends its arms to imitate her anguished gesture. With the turbans worn by several onlookers the monkey makes the scene seem exotic and oriental, even though the events actually occurred in Rome.

Another innovation is to suppress the "mantle" and "girdle of gold" in Sebastian's uniform, putting him instead in a splendid suit of contemporary armor. Finally, several of the onlookers wear turbans even though the events occurred in Rome.

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Photographed at the church by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.