Rubens’ “Saint Sebastian Tended by Two Angels” disappeared for three centuries and was misidentified after it resurfaced—but experts now know the truth behind this mysterious masterwork.
An art mystery spanning three hundred years has finally been solved with the help of Sotheby’s. The auction house’s experts have traced the provenance of a painting that’s been missing and misidentified for centuries. The work in question is “Saint Sebastian Tended by Two Angels,” an oil on canvas piece created by Flemish painter, Peter Paul Rubens.
The painting disappeared from records in the 1730s before re-emerging in 1963. When it was put up for auction in 2008, it was misidentified as a piece by French artist Laurent de la Hyre. The painting has since drawn considerable attention due to its enigmatic origins. After years of careful research and, more recently, an X-ray analysis, it was identified as a genuine work of the esteemed Flemish artist, rather than da la Hyre.
The painting will be a part of Sotheby’s July 5 auction—the first time it’ll be going under the hammer as an authenticated Rubens work. It’s expected to sell for anywhere between $5 million to $7 million in the upcoming sale.
But how did a painting created by one of the greatest artists in history fade into obscurity? There’s a lot more to the story than meets the eye.
The oil on canvas piece measures 48 ¾ x 38 ½ inches, as described in Sotheby’s official lot listing. Saint Sebastian, a Roman soldier, is its focal subject. According to the stories, his comrades persecuted and shot him after he converted to Christianity. However, he didn’t die from the arrow piercings thanks to divine intervention.
Rubens painted a piece of armor on the lower-left side of the composition, implying that Saint Sebastian discarded the military gear while preparing for martyrdom. The scene also depicts the two angels who saved him when he was left to die from his wounds.
The Spinola Family Treasure
Ambrogio Spinola, an Italian nobleman and military commander, likely commissioned “Saint Sebastian Tended by Two Angels,” according to scholars. This is a reasonable hypothesis, given Ambrogio’s devout Catholicism and military background.
“Ambrogio Spinola was […] a soldier fighting a war of religion,” shared George Gordon, Sotheby’s co-chairman of old master paintings worldwide, with CNN. “When [Sebastian’s] faith became apparent and he refused to denounce it, he was condemned to be martyred […] it would have been an appropriate subject for Spinola to commission.”
Rubens also held strong ties with the Spinola family, as he shared a great deal of political, diplomatic, and artistic interests with Ambrogio.
Rubens completed the painting either from 1606 to 1608 in Italy, or 1609 to 1610 in Antwerp. Ambrogio’s descendants continued to inherit it for 80 years; but the line of inheritance made tracing its provenance tricky.
The 1655 will of Filippo Spinola, Ambrogio’s son, is the first known record of the painting. Afterwards, the family passed the work to a Spinola heir whose sons were either dead or childless. As a result, Ambrogio’s granddaughter, Anna Spinola, inherited the painting in 1731. The family passed it on through the female line of descent since then. This made it difficult to track records of the work under the Spinola surname.
The painting was virtually untraceable until it reappeared in 1963 as part of an art collection in Missouri. Its present owner then acquired it from a 2008 Ivey-Selkirk auction for $40,000. Unfortunately, those in charge of selling the piece had misattributed it to French artist Laurent de la Hyre.
A Tale of Two Paintings
The painting still intrigued experts due to its mysterious provenance (or lack thereof). So began the in-depth investigation process to discover its secrets.
It turned out that there were two versions of the Rubens work. Experts initially thought that the newly-discovered piece was a copy, while the other painting displayed at the Galleria Corsini, Rome was the original one. However, an X-ray analysis conducted in April revealed that the long lost piece was, indeed, the prime version.
The X-ray showed layers of brushwork, indicating that Rubens had made several changes before completing the final piece. For instance, Saint Sebastian was first painted facing right, rather than left. Rubens initially painted another arrow piercing the saint’s thigh, before deciding to omit it later on.
Perhaps it’s just as well that the rediscovered piece turned out to be the prime one. According to Sotheby’s, the copy hanging at the Galleria Corsini isn’t in the best condition. The prime original, on the other hand, better showcases the master techniques deployed by Rubens.
Bringing Back a Stunning Masterpiece
George Gordon of Sotheby’s describes the brushwork as having a “liveliness” to it. “It was easy to appreciate the speed and the vivacity with which it was painted, which seemed to me to speak very strongly for Rubens’ own brush,” he explained to CNN.
Gordon told Artnet that the discovery is “proof that even great artists’ names can be lost to history.”
“Thankfully the fascinating detail revealed by scientific analysis, combined with meticulous research, and consideration by leading scholars, rightfully affirms the reattribution of this work to one of the greatest painters of his time, and shows us that there is still so much for us to discover, even about the artist’s best-known works,” he continued.
Banner photo from Sotheby’s official website.