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Benozzo Gozzoli, Saint Sebastian, 1464-1465, fresco (detail), San Gimignano, San’Agostino

Travel guide for Tuscany

Saint Sebastian

In the church of Saint Augustine, Benozzo created a votive fresco commissioned by the Augustinians following the plague that struck the town in 1464. It is certain that, in order to carry out this work, the artist broke off his decoration of the main chapel with the Episodes from the life of Saint Augustine. The iconography of this fresco is quite unusual compared to traditional representations in which Saint Sebastian is clad only in a loincloth and tied to a tree or column. Here, the saint is shown standing on a pedestal supported by angels and dressed in a tunicle tied at the waist and a large cloak opened to protect the population praying at his feet, as indicated by inscription on the pedestal, which reads SANCTE SEBASTIANE INTERCEDE PRODEVOTO POPOLO TVO. Another inscription on the painted marble floor indicates the date of completion as 28th July 1464.[1]


Along with the original commission to fresco the choir of Sant'Agostino in San Gimignano, Gozzoli received a number of other requests, including two 'Pestbilder' (a painted prayer against the plague). For the Sant'Agostino, Gozzoli created a votive fresco showing St Sebastian Intercessor on the southern nave wall. This work was painted during the outbreak of the plague in 1464, as we are informed by the inscription on the saint's pedestal. This would mean that Gozzoli interrupted the painting of the apsidal chapel in order to produce this picture.
The outbreak of the plague caused a rapid increase in depictions of St Sebastian where the saint is clad only in a loincloth and tied to a tree or column. Here he is standing dressed on a pedestal. God the Father, surrounded by angels holding arrows in their hands, appears above the saint's head. He is about to hurl the arrow he is holding at the world. Mary and Christ are kneeling before him as intercessors. Christ is pointing to the open wound on his side and Mary is baring her breast in order to remind God of their sacrifices for the Christians and move him to be lenient. The prayer of St Sebastian is keeping off God's arrows which are breaking behind him, thus protecting the people crowded at his feet.
The Augustinian behind the white-haired man in profile on the left is probably a portrait of Domenico Strambi, presumably the author of the iconographic program of the Scenes from the Life of St Augustine, painted by Benozzo in the choir of Sant'Agostino. Furthermore, on the small devotional picture of the Crucifixion on the lower frame of the fresco, the donor portrait of Domenico Strambi can be seen.

In the upper register, God the Father, surrounded by seraphim, is depicted gripping an arrow he is about to hurl against mankind. Beneath him, Mary bears her breast and Jesus exhibits his wounds as a reminder of the sacrifice made for the redemption of the world in an attempt to intercede against the wrath of the Father.

Using a sophisticated optical effect characteristic of Benozzo's style, the fresco seeks to create the impression of a great altarpiece enclosed within a false marble frame. This optical illusion is enhanced by the small pax of the Crucifixion, painted as a small tablet resting on the altar below it. The Augustinian friar portrayed kneeling at the foot of the Crucifix has been identified by scholars as Fra' Domenico Strambi, the patron of the cycle of episodes from the life of Saint Augustine. The inscription "F.D.M.P" which accompanies the representation perhaps stands for "Frater Dominicus Magister Parisinus" and would seem to substantiate this hypothesis.
The recent restoration carried out in 1990 established that the fresco was created in just sixteen days, hence with a certain haste, allowing the artist to continue his work on the chapel of the church choir.

Benozzo painted another fresco with the same theme, the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian on the inner entrance wall of the collegiate church of Santa Maria Assunta in San Gimignano. On this occasion, the saint is depicted in accordance with the iconographic tradition of Italian art during the 15th century.[2]

Some two years later, Benozzo painted another fresco featuring the same subject on the counter-façade of the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta in San Gimignano.



Benozzo Gozzoli, San Sebastiano, 1464Benozzo Gozzoli, Saint Sebastian, 1464-1465, fresco, San Gimignano, San’Agostino

Benozzo Gozzoli, Saint Sebastian, 1464-1465, fresco (detail), San Gimignano, San’Agostino

Benozzo Gozzoli, San Sebastiano (particolare), 1464, chiesa di Sant'Agostino, San Gimignano

  Benozzo Gozzoli, San Sebastiano (particolare), 1464, chiesa di Sant'Agostino, San Gimignano

  Benozzo Gozzoli, San Sebastiano (particolare), 1464, chiesa di Sant'Agostino, San Gimignano

Benozzo Gozzoli, San Sebastiano, 1464


Gozzoli painted in San Gimignano another fresco of St Sebastian on the inner entrance wall of the collegiate church of Santa Maria Assunta. The work as commissioned by the city government in February 1465, six months after the plague epidemic.
On this occasion the saint is depicted in accordance with the iconographical tradition of Italian art during the 15th century. The saint provided artist with an opportunity to depict a nude, which is why the theme was particularly popular from the Renaissance onwards. The arrows which his tormentors are pointing at him symbolize a sudden illness. The similarity of a body transfixed with arrows and that of a plague victim makes the choice of Sebastian as a plague saint appear plausible.
Much of the painting was executed by assistants.


The Tabernacolo dei Giustiziati (The Tabernacle of those sentenced to death) is a small brick building located in the Municipality of Certaldo along the Via Francigena. It plays hosts to splendid frescos by the famed Florentine painter Benozzo Gozzoli. After completing important commissions in Florence, Umbria and Lazio, Gozzoli began working in San Gimignano illustrating the stories from the life of Saint Augustine for the church by the same name.

At this time, Certaldo’s vicars asked the artist to decorate this small church. Currently, its frescoes can be found in the ex-church of Santi Tommaso and Prospero in Certaldo Alto next to the Palazzo Pretorio. The structure dates back to 1400 and its name derived from the fact that it was used to comfort the condemned who were sentenced to capital punishment. The Vicar who commissioned these works was in charge of administering justice throughout the territory.

The tabernacle’s frescoes are considered the prototype of all of Gozzoli’s frescos and his school carried out similar works in other buildings. The paintings depict religious scenes and figures such as ‘The Annunciation’, ‘God the Father and the Holy Spirit’s Dove with the Evangelists’, ‘The Crucifixion of Saint Sebastian’, ‘Jesus Preaching’, ‘The Deposition’ and ‘The Resurrection’. All of these works represent Faith’s victory over Evil and the artist’s deep religious sentiment. His decorative motifs, such as garlands, flower and laurel wreaths, follow the typical Renaissance style.



Benozzo Gozzoli and his Workshop, Tabernacle of Giustiziati: Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, 1467, fresco, Certaldo, Santi Michele e Jacopo
[1] The martyrdom of St Sebastian
Saint Sebastian (died c. 288) was a Christian saint and martyr, who is said to have been killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians. He is commonly depicted in art and literature tied to a post and shot with arrows. This is the most common artistic depiction of Sebastian; however, he was rescued and healed by Saint Irene of Rome before haranguing the emperor and being clubbed to death; his body was afterwards thrown into the sewer.
The earliest representation of Sebastian is a mosaic in the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (Ravenna, Italy) dated between 527 and 565. Another early representation is in a mosaic in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli (Rome, Italy), which was probably made in the year 682. It shows a grown, bearded man in court dress but contains no trace of an arrow. As protector of potential plague victims (a connection popularized by the Golden Legend[8]) and soldiers, Sebastian naturally occupied a very important place in the popular medieval mind, and hence was among the most frequently depicted of all saints by Late Gothic and Renaissance artists, in the period after the Black Death.[9] The opportunity to show a semi-nude male, often in a contorted pose, also made Sebastian a favourite subject. His shooting with arrows was the subject of the largest engraving by the Master of the Playing Cards in the 1430s, when there were few other current subjects with male nudes other than Christ. Sebastian appears in many other prints and paintings, although this was also due to his popularity with the faithful. Among many others, Botticelli, Perugino, Titian, Pollaiuolo, Giovanni Bellini, Guido Reni (who painted the subject seven times), Mantegna (three times), Hans Memling, Gerrit van Honthorst, Luca Signorelli, El Greco, Honoré Daumier, John Singer Sargent and Louise Bourgeois all painted Saint Sebastians.
The saint is ordinarily depicted as a handsome youth pierced by arrows. There were predella scenes, when required, often of his arrest, confrontation with the Emperor, and final beheading. The illustration in the infobox is the Saint Sebastian of Il Sodoma, at the Pitti Palace, Florence.

[2] Frescoes of saints on the pillars
The two entrance pillars to the chapel round off the fresco paintings with four saints on each side. These eight saints represent an important addition to the life of St Augustine. Their portraits are placed in niches in order to create the impression that they are sculptures. The impression of painted sculptures is contradicted by the garments which extend beyond the painted architecture.
On the northern pillar are St Monica, St Sebastian, St Bartolus and St Gimignano. On the southern pillar St Nicholas of Bari, St Fina, St Nicholas of Tolentino and Raphael and Tobias are depicted. The eight saints standing in niches on the fronts and sides of the choir pillars are important elements in the design. The four saints in the lower register, Sebastian, Bartolus, Nicholas of Tolentino and Tobias, are each provided with a story related to their lives.
St Sebastian, who according to St Ambrose came from Milan, suffered his martyrdom in Rome at the end of the third century. He, one of the 14 auxiliary saints, is holding an arrow and a palm frond, attributes which identify him as a martyr. As an auxiliary saint in time of plague, his worship became increasingly important from the 14th century onwards. In keeping with the other pictures in the lower register, the composition includes a "historia" which relates to the life of the saint.





Benozzo Gozzoli , St Sebastian (on the pillar), 1464-65, fresco, Apsidal chapel, Sant'Agostino, San Gimignano



San Gimignano, view from the Torre Grossa

  Morning - San Gimignano, Siena, Italy - March 27, 2016 02   San Gimignano, UNESCO World Heritage Site

Chiesa di Sant'Agostino, San Gimignano, vista dalla Torre Grossa


  San Gimignano, morning  

San Gimignano, UNESCO World Heritage Site


Art in Tuscany | Benozzo Gozzoli

The life of Benozzo Gozzoli Benozzo
| Gozzoli was born in 1420 in Florence, the son of tailor Lese di Sandro.
Like many other painters of the early Renaissance, Gozzoli was initially trained as a goldsmith. At the age of 27 he began to work with Fra Angelico (1395-1455) in Orvieto and Rome. During his apprenticeship years, 1438-1444/45, in the workshop of Fra Angelico, Gozzoli took part in the decoration of the cells in the Dominican monastery of San Marco. The paintings in Cosimo de’Medici’s double cell (cell 38/39) are thought to have been done almost solely by him, and these include a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi.
After completing the work in San Marco, Benozzo entered into a contract with Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), to work with him for three years on the second Baptistery door in Florence, the Gate of Paradise, starting from 24 January 1445.
Both Fra Angelico and Lorenzo Ghiberti were to influence his entire work. From Ghiberti he learned precision in depicting the finest details and how to illustrate a story vividly, and from Fra Angelico, he took the latter’s bright color palette, which Gozzoli succeeded in transferring to the art of fresco painting.
After work with Ghiberti, Benozzo returned to Fra Angelico. They worked in Rome and Orvieto, where together with Fra Angelico he painted two of the four vault sections of the Chapel of San Brizio in the cathedral; Christ the Judge, Angels and the Chosen and the Choir of Prophets. The two vault sections that remained empty were completed 52 years later, by Luca Signorelli (ca 1445-1523) using sketches produced by Fra Angelico.

In 1449 Benozzo worked in Montefalco in Umbria where he left frescoes in the churches of San Fortunato and San Francesco. His first major independent commission was the fresco work in the choir of San Francesco in Montefalco with scenes from the life of St. Francis (1450-1452). The cycle of St. Francis in Montefalco contains a total of 17 episodes from the life and work of the saint, arranged in a total of 12 pictures and a lost stained glass window. In the vault, St. Frances is enthroned in glory with angels on either side; he is surrounded by the most important saints of the Franciscan order.

The commission to paint the private Medici Chapel brought the artist back to Florence. As early as 1442 Pope Martin V had given the Medicis permission to build a private chapel with a portable family altar. The chapel, on the first floor of the Medicis’ residence, was built by Michelozzo (1396-1472) between 1446 and 1449 and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Stimulated by the prestige attached to this commission and the abundance of materials at his disposal (including gold), Gozzoli created one of the most fascinating fresco cycles of 15th-century Florence. Some art historians consider this to be his greatest work, and it is certainly the most famous of his works.

By 1463 at the latest, Benozzo had left his native city because of the danger of plague, and moved to San Gimignano, where he lived for four years, until 1467. There, in collaboration with several assistants, he did the second of his life’s two major works, the decoration of the apsidal chapel of the church of Sant’Agostino.
For the same church, Benozzo created a votive fresco showing St. Sebastian Intercessor on the southern nave wall. This is notable in that Benozzo went against iconographic canon, according to which St. Sebastian had to appear wearing a loincloth and pierced by arrows, instead depicting the saint fully clothed and unhurt. The saint is shown praying for the protection of the people surrounding him from the plague.

Benozzo spent the years 1464 and 1465 in Certaldo around San Gimignano. There he created a tabernacle that stood by to the bridge over the River Agliena. People condemned to death were led past it, which gave it the name “Tabernacle of the Condemned”. In 1958 the frescos were taken down and displayed in the chapel of San Tommaso in the Palazzo Pretorio in Certaldo. The theme of the pictures is the suffering of Christ and the martyrs.
Benozzo’s last creative period was in Pisa, where he was commissioned in 1469 to carry out a major cycle of frescos for the Composanto comprising 26 pictures from the Old Testament, on which he would work for 16 years. The frescos were almost entirely destroyed as a result of a bomb attack in 1944, which caused a great fire in the Composanto. The undamaged sections were taken off the walls. During the same creative period Benozzo stayed in Legoli in the province of Pisa, where he had fled in 1478/79 because of the plague. There he created a tabernacle, of which fragments remain today.
During this last creative period of his life, Benozzo also produced two oil paintings, making him one of the first Italian masters to work with oil. The works were the Descent from the Cross and the Raising of Lazarus, both painted for Bishop Pandolfini.

Benozzo Gozzoli died in 1497. He was buried in the monastery of San Domenico in Pistoria.


Holiday accomodation in Tuscany | Podere Santa Pia | Artist and writer's residency


Podere Santa Pia
Podere Santa Pia, garden view, April
San Gimignano