The Museum voor Schone Kunsten (MSK, Ghent) was able to add this exceptionally rare painting to its collection in 2023 thanks to the generous support of the Friends of the Museum. Painted by the enigmatic Caravaggist artist Melchior de la Mars (ca. 1585-1650), it was discovered during the preparations for the museum’s monographic exhibition on Theodoor Rombouts (1597-1637), which was held in spring 2023. Because the work had not survived the centuries unscathed, it recently underwent an extensive restoration treatment. This was also an opportunity to examine the painting from a material perspective.
Melchior de la Mars was undoubtedly one of the most imaginative artists working in Ghent during the seventeenth century. Unfortunately, very little biographical information survives. The artist is known to have worked in the city between 1619 and 1621, when he painted the impressive Circumcision of Christ (1621, Augustinian Monastery, Ghent). He was working in Brussels during the period 1626-27. De la Mars’s corpus of paintings, all religious in nature, can be counted on one hand. His distinctive and idiosyncratic visual language, which combines a late-Mannerist technique with the style inspired by Caravaggio (1571-1610), is particularly noteworthy.
The painting’s subject – Saint Sebastian being released by the Roman widow Irene and her servant – refers to the story of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s (ca. 243-316) bodyguard, Sebastian, who was sentenced to death for professing his Christian faith. He miraculously survived being shot by arrows. The scene depicting Irene was popular in the seventeenth century because it symbolized Christian charity and emphasized the role of women as carers, as prioritized during the Counter Reformation. At the same time, the tableau’s significance is also linked to the powers later ascribed to Sebastian. He became a saint to whom people prayed for protection against the plague. We see this, for example, in the suggestion of a convulsion and his discolored limbs – two symptoms of the disease – and the unusual sky in the background. This might allude to the menacing natural phenomena that people associated with the plague in the seventeenth century. In the 1620s, the period when this painting must have been created, Europe – including Ghent – suffered multiple outbreaks of the deadly disease. Back then, this painting must have been a source of solace and hope.