c1616 by Guido Reni
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Looking at the Spanish realism of The Sacred Made Real exhibition, one is drawn to remember the multitude of realist religious paintings. So many of the schools were meticulous in their depictions, determined to capture the Romanesque or Grecian sculpted body in paint and, more often than not, these techniques were particularly applied to Christ and other religious figures. Capturing Saint Sebastian is Reni, an Italian Baroque painter of the same century, using similar techniques as the Spanish. Like Ribalta’s and Zurbarán’s paintings (postcard seventy-five & eighty-nine), contrast here is emphasised with the centrally lit figure and darkly consuming background. No distraction is given, all focus is to be on the Saint and his state of pain; though emotion is not as convincing, or indeed as captivating, as the Spanish painters, who seemed to portray a genuine empathy with their figures’ state of mind. Reni’s Saint is distinctly Italian, from his Roman nose and jaw line to the rippling torso; what has been inspired by the ancient traditions of the statue has been translated, though perhaps what is beautiful is less believable, as his figure appears frozen and unreal. This is not to denounce Reni’s work, which is incredibly dramatic in composition and the painting flawless, but we are more aware of its idolisation, of the status of a Saint.