The Influence of Michelangelo on Bernini: Dying Slave vs St. Sebastian

Rachel Crist


Fig. 10, Gianlorenzo Bernini, “St. Sebastian”, c. 1618, (Source: Wikimedia Commons)



Fig. 11, Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Dying Slave”, c. 1516, Spain (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Michelangelo was commissioned to complete the Dying Slave for the tomb of Pope Julius II. He worked on this sculpture from 1513-1516, along with the Rebellious Slave, but they both remain unfinished. It is a widely notorious argument that Michelangelo abandoned the pieces because he saw a fracture or prominent crack in the marble running across the face and down the left shoulder. However, in letters to the Pope he claimed the two Slaves unsuitable for the reduced version of the tomb because to their scale.[1] In this sculpture, the man’s left wrist is strapped to the back of his neck and there is s band around his chest. The symbolism of the posture the figure is in suggests the point in which life is taken from the body to move on to a different realm.[2]

This image can be compared to Bernini’s St. Sebastian. It was commission by Pope Paul V who had hoped Bernini would prove himself to be “the Michelangelo of his Age.”[3]  He worked on this statue between the years of 1616 and 1617. This features a biblical tale of the Christian martyr St. Sebastian pinned to a tree, with his flesh pierced and filled with arrows, which was his punishment of death. In some art historian’s opinions, “The unusual pose of a seated Sebastian may derive from early caravaggesque paintings, such as Nicholas Reginier’s St. Sebatian, but the prominent rock evokes traditional images of the dead Christ, such as in Passignano’s Pieta of 1612 for Cardinal Scipione Borghese.”[4] Another opinion states, “Bernini’s under-life-sized marble offers a youthful model, as it were, of his blending of High Renaissance, Hellenistic, and early Baroque traditions.”[5]

The two images can be associated by the symbolism of death portrayed in both figures and also, the posing and musculature of the bodies. Since both figures are on the brink of death, it appears that they are both in a state of spiritual transcendence. These works can also be compared to the Ecstasy of St. Teresa because of this symbolic meaning. This physical and emotional state in which is portrayed in all three figures could also be relevant to the theory of Neo-Platonism, which states that the mysticism of an individual soul is being spiritually united when death occurs. Another comparison could be made between the St. Sebastian figure and the Pieta. Bernini edited the usual abundance of protruding arrows in Sebastian’s body to only two (with a second pair on the ground, almost as if it were an iconographic footnote) in order to emphasize the saint’s theological identification with Christ, which could be the formal reference to the Pieta. [6]

It is plain to see that Bernini studied Michelangelo’s musculature and body movement, as well as studying other High Renaissance artist’s interpretations, because of the likeness in both figures. St. Sebastian and the Dying Slave are both shown with muscular, well-defined bodies in an awkward or bent pose that represents defeat and death. However, the figures do differ in the physical sense that the Dying Slave pose could be seen as more sensuous because of the curved way his body is sculpted, whereas the St. Sebastian figure is sliding down to the ground in despair. It is possible that since the St Sebastian was such an early work for Bernini, he looked to many other artist’s, including Michelangelo, for inspiration and influence.  Michelangelo’s influence on Bernini is depicted by the symbolism of death, the posture of the dying figures, and the musculature clearly depicted in a classical Greek/Renaissance fashion.


[1] Michael Hirst, Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame. (London: Yale University Press, 2011), 140

[2] Anthony Hughes. Michelangelo. (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1997), 154

[3] Charles Scribner III, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1991),. 52

[4] Scribner III, Gian Loranzo Bernini, 52

[5] Scribner III, Gian Loranzo Bernini, 52

[6] Scribner III, Gian Loranzo Bernini, 52