Work of the Bolognese school artist Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino, the painting depicts St Sebastian, officer of the Praetorian Guard of the Emperor Diocletian, condemned to martyrdom at the hands of archers because his faith in Christianity was discovered. The young man survived this torture and was nursed back to health by the holy woman Irene, who had gone to collect his body for burial. Sebastian died following a second sentence of martyrdom, and this time he was beaten to death.
The canvas belongs to the artist's late, but still fertile and stylistically successful phase and was commissioned by the Prince of Pesaro as a gift for Cardinal Giovan Carlo de' Medici, as shown in a letter dated August 1653, kept in the Florence State Archives. The gift was certainly appreciated as the honoree was a great admirer of the Bolognese school of painting and he decided to place the painting in his Florentine residence, the Casino degli Orti Oricellari in Via della Scala. He had received this building as a gift from his brother Grand Duke Ferdinand II and transformed it into a treasure trove of artistic masterpieces.
The setting of the scene in a dark landscape, illuminated by dramatic glimpses of light, highlights the young body of the martyr, clearly inspired by an ancient torso but without neglecting that naturalistic evidence that makes it so effectively moving for those who contemplate it. The angel in the top left corner seems to want to console Sebastian in a meaningful and touching dialogue of glances, made even more pathetic by the lights surrounding the angel and framing the martyr's eyes.