Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Saint Sebastian nursed by Saint Irene

Sally Metzler
Chicago, Illinois, United States


Saint Sebastian Cured by Irene
Luca Giordano
Philadelphia Museum of Art

She wears neither latex gloves nor mask, yet Saint Irene performs surgery of the most epic kind, shown here pulling a deadly arrow from the thigh of Saint Sebastian. He was a Roman soldier who incurred the wrath of Emperor Diocletian for protecting Christian martyrs. She, the surgeon-nurse, was a widow, having lost her husband Castulus to martyrdom as well. Diocletian ordered his soldiers to tie Sebastian to a tree and slay him with arrows. Irene operates in the open air, assisted by her maidservant, who holds a water vessel. Despite bare-bones medical equipment and rudimentary technique, Irene saved the life of Sebastian. She dressed his wounds and nursed him back to health, but eventually to no avail, as he would be martyred a second time, clubbed to death after publicly criticizing Diocletian.

 Photo of Pestsäule in Vienna

Images of Saint Sebastian pierced with arrows were often invoked to ward off the plague, as disease was thought to be carried through arrows. Neapolitan artist Luca Giordano (1634 – 1705) depicted Sebastian nursed by Irene shortly after a plague had ravaged his native city of Naples. The deadly infection, one of a series to strike the Neapolitan citizens, broke out in 1656, and virulently spread throughout the region.1

Artists were drawn to the histrionic and tragic life of Sebastian, perhaps finding appealing the opportunity to depict a nude, youthful male impaled with arrows. Luca Giordano was no exception when he joined a long artistic tradition of illustrating the first martyrdom of Sebastian. Italian Renaissance master painters Andrea Mantegna and Antonella da Messina had painted iconic images of Sebastian nearly two hundred years earlier (1480),2 and though mesmerizing in their stately grandeur, their saints are more static and votive compared to the Baroque narrative of Giordano. He expands the drama to include Nurse Irene, alluding to an aftermath of redemption and healing carried forth by her surgery.  Sebastian’s bound arms swoop upwards, cutting a diagonal through the horizontal scene, lending a typical Baroque dynamism to the composition.

Plague imagery was also invested in columns, known as Pestsäule or Mary columns throughout much of Central Europe, such as in Olomouc and in Vienna’s Graben. They are often elaborate aggregations of carved saints swirling around a column, crowned by a statue of the Virgin Mary and most usually found in town squares. These columns, as well as the many paintings honoring plague saints, were erected either as thanks for deliverance from the deadly scourge, or conversely to ward off and protect. Luca Giordano’s elegant and emotionally charged painting of Saint Sebastian Cured by Irene impresses today as a masterful work of art, and bears witness to society’s struggle with a legacy of deadly epidemics throughout time.



  1. For more on the history and outbreak of this plague, see: S. Scasciamacchia, L. Serrecchia,  L. Giangrossi, et al:  “Plague Epidemic in the Kingdom of Naples, 1656–1658,” in Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal, Jan. 2012: http://dx.doi.org/10.3201/eid1801.110597http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/18/1/11-0597_article
  2. Mantegna’s work is in the Louvre and Messina’s painting is found in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany.



SALLY METZLER, PhD, Chicago, Illinois


Highlighted in Frontispiece Spring 2015 – Volume 7, Issue 2
Spring 2015  |  Sections  |  Art Flashes

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