Bruges 1580 – Amsterdam 1617

Saint Sebastian

Oil on Canvas
133 x 91.5 cm





Probably Marcantonio Filomarino, 1634. A painting of this subject is described in the inventory of his collection “31. Un S. Sebastiano del Finzone con cornice d’oro, e negre”;
Private Collection, England in 1860s (from the newspaper on the reverse);
Private Collection, Tegernsee from the 19th century, until 2009


G. Labrot, Collections of Paintings in Naples 1600-1780, Italian Inventories 1, Munich 1992, p.63;

C. Whitfield, Caravaggio’s Friends and Foes, exh. cat., London 2010, pp. 28-37



The third child of Maijcken and Jacques Finson, who married about 1560, Louis Finson’s date of birth was probably at the early part of the possible time span set by his mother’s death in 1580. Although we have no information about his whereabouts before 1604, his journey to Italy must have started earlier than that date when he is recorded in Naples. Rubens was 23 when he travelled to Italy in 1600, and it would be surprising if Finson had been much older for this journey of a lifetime. The trip would have certainly included Rome, and he was probably one of the young artists who were bowled over by the images he saw, like the Contarelli chapel pictures done by Caravaggio in 1599/1600. His parents were painters of fabric and ornament, and so he shared some of Caravaggio’s background as a craftsman: we know from Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, who knew him especially in Provence, that he was very familiar with him, telling us “Il a toute la manière de Michel Angelo Caravaggio et s’est nourry longtemps avec luy”[1]. Although Peiresc, who visited Rome and Naples in 1600/ 1601 before returning to his native Aix-en-Provence in 1604, does not seem to have taken account of Caravaggio when he was in Italy, he knew the natural philosophers of Rome and particularly of Naples, like the Marchese di Villa, Giovanni Battista Manso, Nicola Antonio Stigliola and Ferrante Imperato. It was this environment that Caravaggio found especially supportive when he came to Naples in 1606[2], and Peiresc in turn was enthusiastic of the new perception of reality that Finson brought with him to Aix in 1613. Finson was among the first artists to realize for himself the huge emotive support that he could achieve by bringing these new images to the centres he visited, and exploit its potential. He must be counted among the few artists who really realized what Caravaggio had achieved, and perhaps how he had done it.

Finson came to possess a number of works by Caravaggio, including the Magdalen that was painted at Zagarola, where the painter took refuge after fleeing Rome due to the affray in which Tomassoni died. Finson also bought, with his compatriot Abraham Vinck, the Madonna of the Rosary, the Crucifixion of St. Andrew, and a missing Judith and Holofernes. He clearly realized the significance of Caravaggio’s revolutionary technique of painting very early on. He kept the collection of some thirty paintings that represented the best of modern Italian painting, during his travels, and they were used to great effect, certainly in Provence, and in Paris, and in the Low Countries. But although these works included pieces that were almost priceless, he does not seem to have had to part with them and even works that he had himself painted in Naples were part of his stock-in-trade that accompanied him on his travels, eventually being dispersed from Amsterdam after his death in 1617. We now know the masterpiece that is the Four Elements[3] that he painted in Naples in 1611, which was among the paintings that Louis Finson bequeathed to his family in 1617. The realization that these works were part of his campaign to introduce the new naturalism in painting wherever he went can be appreciated from the considerable fortune that he left when he died: he was also able to supply versions of paintings like the Magdalen and the Crucifixion of St Andrew that he possessed, as well as original paintings of his own invention.

Although he is sometimes known from replicas – and copies of Caravaggios like the Magdalen – he used great variety in his pictures: the St Sebastian painted in Provence, now in the parish church at Rougiers (Var), is only loosely a reference back to Caravaggio’s original, known from the version in a private collection in Rome (see Caravaggio, Düsseldorf 2006/2007, exh. cat. no. 41, p. 257) which in Bellori’s day had left Rome for France. From the generous still-life of the Marburg Adam and Eve, an entirely original composition, it would seem as though Finson could have been the author of other compositions with this detail that have been confused with Caravaggio himself, because the distinctive character of these fruits and flowers is unmistakable.

Although the majority of his references to Caravaggio are from works thought to have been done in Naples, there are a number of recollections of Roman works in his pictures, and he must have been in contact with Caravaggio even before his flight from the city in 1606. There is an instance of a version of Vermiglio’s Incredulity of St Thomas that was painted for the church of San Tommaso dei Cenci in the capital that Finson did in Provence as soon as he arrived there (Aix-en-Provence, Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur). This was the work that so impressed Peiresc: ‘un sainct Thomas qui fourre le doigt dans la playe de Nostre Seigneur en présence de tous les apôtre, sy artistement, d’un si beau desseing, d’un sy beau coloris et d’un sy parfait relief qu’il ne s’est jamais rien veu de pareil en ce pays-icy’[4].

The present painting is one of the clearest references to Finson’s familiarity with works from Caravaggio’s Roman years: the composition itself, with the tree-trunk balancing the body of St Sebastian, is a recollection of the St. John the Baptist with a Lamb in the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Corsini. The landscape and leaves are a clear indication that he must have seen the first version of the Conversion of St. Paul, done by Caravaggio for the Cerasi chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo and now in the Odescalchi collection. The form of the Saint himself would appear to be a reference to a celebrated statue, the so-called Barberini Faun (now in the Munich Glyptothek). The first reference to this statue is usually thought to date from Cardinal Francesco Barberini’s acquisition of it in 1628. It is thought that it was discovered during excavations at Castel Sant’ Angelo, and that its damaged state was due to its having been used as a missile against barbarian invaders in the dark ages of Rome’s history. But apart from the reference to it that this painting implies, it was also the basis of two of Regnier’s pictures of St. Sebastian nursed by St Irene, in the Museum in Rouen and Stanford University Art Museum, California (see A. Lemoine, Regnier, 2007, p. 88/89) which are thought to date from the early 1620s. They are part of a renewed interest in the early Seicento for the Saint, marked by the demolition of the church of San Bastianello in the Theatine redevelopment of Sant’ Andrea della Valle. St. Sebastian’s body had been dumped in the Cloaca Maxima, and Maffeo Barberini commissioned Ludovico Carracci to paint the picture of this event (now in the J.Paul Getty Museum, Malibu). It seems as though the statue now in Munich could have been discovered earlier, and perhaps was uncovered in excavations promoted by Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte: the Barberini were of course the collectors who had most access to his collection when it was sold in 1628. Annick Lemoine has suggested that there was a sixteenth century pastiche of the statue, but it does not really account for the extent of the references to this design in the early Seicento.

The painting has a number of important pentiments, the most prominent being the repositioning of the right leg, which was originally in a different position, with the knee much higher up (the original position of the foot is still clearly visible). The armour on the ground to the right is of great subtlety and recalled that in the Vienna Crowning with Thorns and the Odescalchi Conversion. This is one of Caravaggio’s favourite devices, one which enabled him to build the illusion of form from the most prominent points of light, working on the structure of the shape solely from the principal elements of appearance (rather than initiating the design with a memorized structure that guides a drawn form). It is not clear how much access Finson had to Caravaggio’s actual working methods, because there is no indication that he followed him with his technique of incisions used to ‘fix’ the position of his models. But Finson obviously sought to exploit the surprise of the spectator in being able to achieve extremely difficult foreshortening, just as Caravaggio himself had done in the ceiling of the Palazzetto Del Monte, where he had depicted the Elements as three figures seen from below with the most difficult of poses, despite, as Bellori commented, not having any experience of this art. The St. Sebastian also shows Finson’s observation of other Caravaggios, like the Ecstasy of St Francis now in the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, the first version of which was done for one of the artist’s earliest patrons, the banker Ottavio Costa.

The perspective foreshortening was evidently one of the most impressive parts of Caravaggesque art for contemporaries. The Salome with the Decollation of St. John the Baptist in the Museum in Braunschweig may even have been painted in Italy before Caravaggio’s death, and the very impressive Resurrection in the church of St-Jean-de-Malte in Aix-en-Provence is dated 1611. The Resurrection was evidently one of the pieces that Finson was induced to part with, probably by Peiresc himself. Even if this may reflect the painting that Caravaggio painted for S. Anna dei Lombardi in Naples (but destroyed in an earthquake in the eighteenth century) the visual inventions that Finson could master as well as copy is evident from many other paintings, and accounts for the extraordinary role that he played in bringing this visual revolution to the rest of Europe. Another painting that was perhaps also painted in Italy is the Samson and Delilah in Marseille, Musée des Beaux-Arts, which also uses the gesture of the foreshortened figure of Samson holding his hands up as they are bound, much like St. Sebastian in the work in this show. This is a feature also of the figure of Earth among the Elements, a tour de force of the imagination that coincides with the inventiveness that must be associated with the philosophers present in Naples, notably Giovanni Battista Della Porta and Stigliola. The originality of the design, and the concept of the elements being so reciprocally involved with each other, is a new concept that belongs with this moment of the Enlightenment; the time is also that of the realization of the need to catalogue the properties of substances, plants, metals, stones, as well as to order history, town planning and music.



[1] MS Carpentras, Bibliothèque Inguimbertine, MS 1876, fol. 590 (Source 41), quoted by D. Bodart, Louis Finson, 1970, p. 11.

[2] For the presumed involvement of Manso, friend of Tasso and of Battistello Carracciolo, in the commissioning of the Seven Acts of Mercy, see D.M. Pagano, ‘La Storia conservativa’, in her Caravaggio a Napoli, 2005, p. 14, 19.

[3] Private Collection, USA, see P. Smeets, Louis Finson, The Four Elements, Milan 2007

[4] D. Bodart, Louis Finson, Brussels 1970, p. 244