Rebuilt by Antonio Abbondi, known as Scarpagnino, in 1548, this church is home to various important pictures, including a splendid cycle of paintings on which Veronese worked at different times from around 1555 to the early 1570s. Over those years he would produce the ceiling panels for the sacristy and nave; the wall frescoes in the nave and choir; and paintings for the presbytery, the high altar and the organ. The church of San Sebastiano, therefore, offers a remarkable anthology of the artist’s prodigious achievements during his first extended stay in Venice.
The Sacristy. This was the first area on which the artist worked, beginning the numerous canvasses that make up the ceiling in 1555. The large central panel shows The Coronation of the Virgin, with the four surrounding ovals containing The Four Evangelists. The borders of the ceiling are decorated with monochrome works: eight Stories from the Old Testament and four Scenes from the Creation of Man; there are also four polychrome tondi of Cherubim. The corners have depictions of the Four Cardinal Virtues in red pigment. The ceiling of opulently-framed compartments is rather low, and the artist uses luminous colours to make the imposing figures stand out against the blue of the sky – thus creating the effect of veritable ‘windows’ open to the heavens above. He also made certain alterations to the frames themselves, on which work had begun in 1543. By making that around the central panel of the Virgin much deeper than those around the four ovals of the Evangelists, he creates the impression that these five images actually do lie beyond the ‘real’ physical screen formed by the frames themselves. These early works by Veronese reveal the variety of influences on the young artist. One can see traces of Parmigianino and Correggio in the refined figures of the central panels, and of Titian and Giulio Romano in the more massive figures of the Evangelists. However, in each work there is the same splendid range of rich, full-bodied colours, enhanced by those shimmering surface effects which the artist was already obtaining through the use of complementary tones and coloured shading.
The ceiling. In December 1555 Veronese signed the contract for the decoration of the nave ceiling, where the canvas panels would be installed the following year. The three main scenes are taken from the Book of Esther, with the biblical heroine an emblem of Faith triumphing over Heresy (embodied by the Babylonian Haman); the reference to the pressing contemporary problems raised by the Reformation is clear. Around these three panels are a number of minor canvasses with figures of Angels, The Cardinal Virtues – Faith, Hope Charity and Justice (one in each corner) – and decorative festoons with playful Cherubs shown in trompe l’oeil balconies. Traditionally, these minor scenes have been attributed to the artist’s assistants – his brother Benedetto and Antonio Fasolo – but they were certainly designed by Veronese himself. The luminous quality of the colours here is quite extraordinary, as is the rendition of the theatrical scenography (a feature which anticipates the massive architectural settings for the various ‘Supper’ paintings that the artist would produce in the following decade). The young artist reveals a dazzling mastery of perspective and compositional structure in combining figures and setting to form a single whole. The elaborate design of the sills and balustrades, together with the wide staircases and cornices that appear to jut forward beyond the space of the picture, are further typical features of Veronese’s work.
The frescoes in the choir and the upper part of the nave. Between 31 March and 8 September 1588 Veronese and his assistants painted the frescoes that decorate the upper walls of the church and the sides of the choir. The linchpins of the entire composition are the figures of The Angel Gabriel and The Virgin of the Annunciation. Occupying the sprandels of the archway that leads through to the presbytery – that is, directly opposite the choir and the entrance to the church – these two works are intended to be immediately visible and are rendered in splendidly flowing colours with marvellous shimmering surfaces. The upper part of the nave walls – above the cornice – is decorated with a fake portico of twisting columns of a type entirely new to Venice (Veronese may have seen something similar during his visit to Mantua in 1552-1553); within each of the niches thus created are imposing monochrome figures of Sibyls and The Fathers of the Church. Whilst those works keep to the theme of the Triumph of Faith, focusing on figures who predicted the Coming of Christ, the frescoes in the Choir depict episodes from the life of the saint to whom the church is dedicated. Facing each other are St. Sebastian Reproving Diocletian and St. Sebastian Beaten to Death with Rods. These are, in fact, the final episodes in the life of the saint, who recovered from the arrow wounds resulting from the first execution ordered by Diocletian but was then beaten to death when he returned once more to berate the emperor for his persecution of the Christians. The full drama of the events is underlined by the theatrical nature of the presentation; the images are very elaborately composed and appear to be enclosed within what seems to be a proscenium arch. The third fresco in the Choir is below that of St. Sebastian Reproving Diocletian. Aligned symmetrically with the entrance to the Choir, it shows a monk passing through a trompe l’oeil doorway, on the threshold of which stands another young monk. The use of this illusionistic technique here is a significant anticipation of what Veronese would achieve just a few years later at the Barbaro Villa in Maser, where the frescoes show various figures at trompe l’oeil doorways or within deceptive settings. The inventiveness and command of perspective illusion are equally noteworthy in the traditional Martyrdom of St. Sebastian at the hands of Diocletian’s archers. The scene is in fact divided, showing an Archer firing his arrow across the body of the church to the opposite wall, where an angel swoops down to carry the palm of martyrdom to St. Sebastian, who is tied to a column.
The paintings on the organ and the frescoes in the lower part of the nave. Whilst still working on the above-described frescoes, Veronese submitted his designs for the body of the organ; work on its construction – by Francesco Fiorentino – would begin in October 1558 and the paintings intended to decorate it would be ready by 1 April 1560. Closed, the organ doors show the Presentation of Christ in the Temple; open, they depict the scene of the Christ Healing the Lame. Full of powerful mannerist figures portrayed in the most varied positions, both works reveal the use of a rich palette and of sudden flashes of light to animate the colour. Above all, however, they illustrate the culmination of Veronese’s exploration of theatrical composition. Here, the space within which the action is performed is remarkably deep, thanks to the receding perspective of architectural components. This again was an innovation in Venice, where up to then perspective had been rendered by the illusionistic depiction of solid walls (Veronese himself exemplifies that tradition in his 1551 frescoes for the Villa soranzo at Treville near Castelfranco). The decoration of the organ is completed by a Nativity on the balcony containing the organist’s bench; this opens to the right into a wide, open landscape and is flanked by two chiaroscuro figures of the Virtues. These latter used to be attributed to Benedetto Veronese but were more probably by Paolo himself; he often used this technique to complete/complement his cycles of painted decoration (even if it does owe more to draughtsmanship than to painting proper). To the sides of the organ are St. Jerome (on the left) and The Blessed Pietro Gambacorta (on the right); respectively, these are the spiritual and actual founders of the Order of the Jeromites. Dating from immediately after the decoration of the organ are the paintings along the lower part of the nave walls. Though frescoes, these employ the technique of tempera grassa, which was intended to give them a shinier finish, rather like that of canvas paintings. However, it was precisely the use of this experimental technique which has led to the gradual decay of the works; the four Sibyls, the eight Apostles and the Old Testament figures of David and Isaiah are now badly faded.
The Presbytery and the High Altar. A document of 1561 records that the friars had that year decided to change the windows of the presbytery, “as and when m. Paolo orders”. Clearly, this was when the artist set to work on the fresco decoration of the cupola and of the walls behind the high altar (the changes to the windows must have been intended to create a larger and more uniform surface for his work). Unfortunately, most of these frescos have been lost, with the sole exception of the chiaroscuro images of St. Paul the Hermit and St. Honofrius – to the left and right of the altar respectively; and even these have been reduced to a ‘skeletal’ state. Having finished his work on the frescoes of the main chapel, Veronese would then be absent from the church for some time, returning only in 1565 to start work on the altarpiece for the high altar: The Madonna and Child with Angel Musicians and SS. Roch, Sebastian, Peter, Francis, Catherine and Elizabeth. The opulent free-standing altar which occupies the centre of the presbytery was designed by Veronese himself and built by Salvatore Tagliapietra, being completed in February 1561. The project was financed by Elisabetta Soranzo, which explains the presence of her name saint amongst those adoring the Virgin; this figure is probably a portrait of that noblewoman. Another saint whose presence might be explained by financial considerations is St. Peter, given that Pietro Mocenigo paid for the painting itself. A tradition dating back to sixteenth-century sources also claims that the figure of St. Francis is a portrait of the prior of the San Sebastiano monastery, Fra’ Bernardo Torlioni. When compared to other Veronese paintings for churches, this San Sebastiano altarpiece reveals some innovations. Unlike the San Zaccaria painting of just the previous year, it does not show the Virgin hieratically enthroned but above a luminous cloud. Similarly, the saints are not shown within a chapel but against the background of a wide landscape; the two architectural features in the work – a pair of fluted columns – do not serve to establish a scenographical setting. What is more, though the palette continues to consist of rich, warm colours, the use of the play of light slightly modifies the effect. This is particularly clear in the lower part of the painting, where the fall of light accentuates the shimmering effect in the folds of the garments but also renders the shaded areas darker. Again concerned with episodes in the life of the saint to whom the church is dedicated, the two paintings to the sides of the high altar date from a few years later. To the left is SS. Mark and Marcellianus Led to Martyrdom, which shows the old mother of the two twins trying to hold them back as Roman soldiers lead them off to execution; St. Sebastian, in a shining centurion’s breastplate, is depicted comforting the martyrs. Above the crowds present at the event one can see an angel. The second painting shows the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, repeating the scene already depicted in the Choir frescoes; however, given that the order of friars at San Sebastiano was a enclosed one, that Choir, used by the monks, would not have been open to the public and hence the church would have been without this fundamental episode in the life of the titular saint. Stripped of his armour, the young Christian is shown at the centre of the canvas, whilst the emperor’s executioners tie him up before beating him to death with rods. A curious crowd has gathered to witness the event, which takes place in front of the imperial palace, the tall loggia of which is seen against a sky of storm clouds.
Other works by Veronese in the Church. The artist painted various other works for both the church and monastery of San Sebastiano, some of which have since been lost. Sources, in fact, record that he painted the banner for the church, an image of St. Jerome the Hermit which hung in the entrance to the sacristy, and a number of frescoes in the Cloister. What is more, in c.1570 he painted a large Supper in the House of Simon for the monastery refectory; in 1817 that work was transferred to the Brera Gallery in Milan. However, two late paintings can still be seen in the church. The first, which now hangs in what was the Grimani family chapel (the third of the left), shows The Madonna and Child with St. Catherine and Friar Michele Spaventi Dating from 1578, the style, fine execution and noteworthy handling of colour in this work are comparable to those in such famous paintings as The Rape of Europa (in the Doge’s Palace) and The Allegories of Love (in the National Gallery, London) – both of which date from the late 1570s. In the early years of the following decade Veronese would paint the Crucifixion that now hangs in the third chapel on the right, dedicated to All Souls. The colours here are less dazzling and there is that subtle vein of melancholy to be found in all the last works of Veronese, in which the influence of the new religious spirit nurtured by the Council of Trent is clear. Not all scholars accept that one can attribute to the artist the, rather badly preserved, monochrome frescoes on the ceiling of the Grimani chapel. These show The Kiss of Judas, The Garden of Gethsemane, The Burial of Christ, The Resurrection and The Baptism of Christ.