According to the legend, Saint Sebastian became the captain of emperor Diocletian’s praetorian guard but when it was discovered that he was a Christian, the archers shot him. Master Bourdichon has depicted the saint, despite his martyrdom, with a very serene expression of trust that faith will triumph over physical suffering, hence his eyes raised to heaven. The peaceful seascape surrounding the scene contributes to this serenity.
In the mid 15th century it became customary to portray the saint during his martyrdom as a young man with a bare chest, as in the Prayer Book of Charles the Bald (f. 29r), or almost naked, as in a miniature dated around 1440 by the Master of the Ghent Privileges (Baltimore, The Walters Art Gallery, W. 719, f. 134r). Indeed, in the Italian Renaissance he was depicted most frequently with virtually no clothes, as in this instance.
Saint Sebastian was extremely popular in the Middle Ages due to the protection he was said to offer against the plague at a time when epidemics were decimating the population. His patronage against this disease was due to the action he took against the plague that swept through Rome in the year 680. From then on, following the Romans’ example, he was invoked against this disease.