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Church of St. Sebastian - Panicale

Church of St. Sebastian - Panicale

The church of Saint Sebastian in Panicale was built at the end of the fifteenth century by the local community, next to a hospital dedicated to the treatment of plague patients - a lazaretto or lazar house - with a cemetery for the burial of the plague victims. The church, located about 250 meters outside the walls of Panicale, at the end of the Borgo Regio, is a modestly sized brick building, with a square facade covered with plaster. Originally the building had a portico of which two arches remain, left free from the plaster. The phrase engraved above the access portal – ECC(LESI)A S(ANC)TI SEBAST(IAN)I C(AST)RI PANICALIS – informed visitors that the church belonged to the town of Panicale and was dedicated to the saint invoked against the plague. The interior was covered by a gabled roof, with visible wooden trusses; it was modified in its present form in 1623. The church interior is decorated with capitals, cornices, two altars and two choirs.

Outside, in the upper left, there are two terracotta tiles bearing the dates 1690 and 1725, while in the external part of the garden there is the date 1692. It is very difficult to interpret these three dates. It is assumed that the date 1690 is the year in which the Nuns took possession of the building thanks to a bequest from Monsignor Paolo Corsetti to the Collegio delle Vergini. The date 1725 could refer to another bequest to the Collegio. The last date, 1692, no doubt refers to the construction of the boundary wall on the initiative of the Nuns of the Collegio.

Above the side altar within the church is a canvas of the Madonna delle Grazie, attributed to Antonio Pomarancio. But on the back wall is the church’s most famous work, the fresco of the Martyrdom of San Sebastiano by Pietro Perugino, the greatest Umbrian painter of the Renaissance.

The iconography of the painting is well known: the legend of martyrdom is related in a Passio Sancti Sebastiani, traditionally assigned to Saint Ambrose but probably composed by a Roman monk at the end of the fifth century and then present in the Golden Legend by Iacopo da Varazze. Sebastian is said to have been born in 256 AD. to a family originally from the town of Narbonne in Provence, and he served as a soldier among the praetorians, before joining the imperial guard. His conversion to Christianity was discovered by the emperor Diocletian, who angrily ordered that Sebastian be led into a field, tied to a target and shot by archers. The execution site was visited by a widow named Irene, who was surprised to discover that Sebastian was still alive; she took him to her palace and treated his wounds. Diocletian, learning that his soldier had not been killed, immediately gave the order that he be captured again and scourged to death. Saint Sebastian’s survival of torture by arrows greatly contributed to spreading his reputation as a depulsor pestilentiae (deflector of plague).

The setting of the Martyrdom is represented as a room with sumptuous architectural decorations, displaying the knowledge of perspective acquired from the greatest master of this art at that time, Piero della Francesca. The colour is still as bright and clear as the day it was applied to wet plaster, and retains the splendour that distinguishes true fresco painting. The Martyr occupies the centre of the composition and is its main subject; he is tied to a porphyry column placed on a pedestal. The exact proportions of the figure, the admirable description of all its parts, show the study dedicated by Perugino to human forms. The spectator can admire the divine resignation of the saint; instruments of torture are kept out of sight as much as possible. Even the executioners seem to have absorbed the spirit of the Christian hero and carry out their duty with melancholy tenderness. The heads of the archers show a singular beauty and grace and are reminiscent of Raphael.

Two groups of spectators in the background serve to complete the composition. The portico is open and elegant, and between the arches the hills surrounding Panicale and the blue of Lake Trasimeno are visible. The name of the painter is written on the pedestal that supports the Martyr, and on the pillars of the portico, the date 1505. Perugino was then 59 years old. About ten years earlier he had settled in Perugia, after having achieved fame with the execution of major works in Florence and Rome. When he painted in Panicale, his fame was at its peak. Perugino dipicted the subject of the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian more than once: another is a painting on wood, in the church of San Francesco dei Conventuali in Perugia, which was executed thirteen years later, when age had weakened his abilities.

 

Sources:

Da Varazze I., Legenda Aurea, edited by A. Brovarone - L. Brovarone, Torino 1995
Layard A.H., The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, painted in fresco by Pietro Perugino in the Chapel of the Saint at Panicale, London 1856.
Lunghi E., Il Martirio di San Sebastiano di Pietro Perugino a Panicale, Fabrizio Fabbri Editore srl, Panicale 2005

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