Saint Sebastian is more conventionally depicted bound to a tree or pillar and pierced by arrows, or having his wounds tended to by Irene. Having recovered from the attempted execution by arrows, Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered that he be beaten to death and disposed of in the sewer. The denial of burial demonstrated the utmost contempt for fundamental Christian rites. Ludovico Carracci here chose to represent the moment when Roman soldiers dumped the saint’s limp body into the ancient sewage system, the Cloaca Maxima, thereby reducing a heroic martyr to a worthless corpse.
In 1612 Cardinal Maffeo Barberini commissioned this painting for a subterranean family chapel in the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome.