A fine example of late medieval sculpture from the Brummer Collection of Medieval Art, this figure was once part of a large altar piece that was likely in a liturgical space. The sculptor has created a figure who looks attentive and content; he bears a slight smile and rests his hands in the crook of a tree. It is the presence of the tree—actually a sapling—that helps to identify the figure as Saint Sebastian and, among other features, to indicate the date of the sculpture.
Saint Sebastian was a Roman soldier hanged by order of the Roman
Emperor Diocletian in 287 CE. For centuries, the saint was typically depicted with a tree, a reference to the tree upon which he was hanged. But by 1500, it had become more usual to see images of Sebastian with his body pierced by arrows. The old-fashioned iconography of the statue shown here was likely a response to local traditions in the region of southwestern Germany in which it was carved.
There are other clues that help indicate when and where the sculpture was created: The figure is dressed in the polygonal cap and heavy cloak of a middle-class city dweller of the early sixteenth century. The fashion of his haircut is consistent with the first quarter of the century; men’s hair was cut shorter as the century progressed. But what lets us know more specifically where the sculpture was made is its special material.
Limewood sculpture was produced exclusively in the area around present-day Ulm and Augsburg, in the region of Swabia. Wood from the lime tree was easier to carve than oak or fruitwood, the materials of choice in regions of northern Germany, the Low Countries, and, to a lesser extent, in France. The wood of the lime tree was so accessible that an important market developed in the production of sculpted figures for altar pieces for both churches and private homes.
Sculptures were made en masse and shipped to various destinations and were available both on the open market and by commission. If the buyer preferred, the sculpture was painted realistically, as was the case for this figure.