Leonardo’s crossbows

The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, 1475, by Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo, National Gallery

Here’s another painting with a multiplicity of Leonardo figures. This version of the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian is attributed to the Pollaiuolo brothers Antonio and Piero. It is displayed in the National Gallery, London, and the date attribution is 1475. However, if the painting is meant to refer to the charge of sodomy made aganst Leonardo then the earliest completion date would be 1479.

Saint Sebastian survived his ordeal as target practice for a group of archers that had left him for dead. He was nursed back to health by Irene of Rome, the widow of the martyred St Castlus. However, Sebastian was later clubbed to death and his body dumped in a sewer.

Leonardo felt deeply wounded and fearful when he and four other men were brought before authorities and charged with sodomy in April 1479. Although the written accusation wasn’t signed Leonardo suspected that one of his own kind, another artist, had lodged the complaint. He likened the betrayal to the Greek fable of The Eagle Wounded by an Arrow (vaned with its own feathers), and alluded to this in the angel figure he painted for Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ.

But there is another take on the fable: “the misery of realising that one has contributed to one’s own injury but also as a warning against self-reliant pride”. (Wikipedia)

This explains why Leonardo is depicted as self-harming by firing arrows at himself – and in another sense a form of self-flagellation to mortify the flesh against temptation. Notice also that the limbs of the crossbows are all shaped as a bird’s wings.

Battle of the Naked Men (1465-75) engraving by Antonio Pollaiuolo

Antonio del Pollaiuolo produced a similar work with the Battle of the Naked Men, an engraving where ten look-a-like figures are depicted battlling with weapons against each other. It is no coincidence that the warriors share similar physical features and some of the faces are modelled on Leonardo, similar to the St Sebastian painting, and so meant to portray the battle with self and attempting to eliminate what may appear to be faults or weakness in one’s own eyes and the eyes of others.

Botticelli also produced a version of St Sebastian and Leonardo was the model.

Look-a-like Leonardos’… (left to right) from Botticelli’s version of St Sebastian; seen in the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi; and Antonio Pollaiuolo version of St Sebatian.

Could Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo’s painting of San Sebastian and the six archers have inspired Leonardo in conceiving a plan to produce a giant crossbow. A drawing of such a large-size weapon appears in one of Leonardo’s notebooks.

Leonardo’s notbook drawing of a giant crossbow. Codex Atlanticus (1488-89)

But what if the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian was produced later than the current attribution date of 1475, perhaps after the charge of sodomy against Leonardo? This would push the date on to at least 1479. It would also allow for other identities to be given to the archers – perhaps to include Leonardo’s accuser Domenico Ghirlandaio and maybe others.

Of the two bendng men placed in the centre, one is faceless, the other is beardless and can be said to represent Leonardo. Both men are in the process of loading their crossbows ready to fire at at Leonardo. The four other men are all variations on Ghirlandaio, possibly representing his brothers who worked alongside him at his workshop. An item of clothing common to all of the men is a garland – making the connection to the nickname ‘il Ghirlandaio’ – garland maker.

So now the composition can be understood as the two men in the forefront contributing to their own injury. Their perceived behaviour and actions in loading the bolts provide ammunition for Ghirlandaio and the other archers to take aim and fire darts at Leonardo in particular, naked and tied to the tree stump, and portrayed naked again as a reference to Antonio Pollaiuolo’s engraving, the Battle of the Naked Men.

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