Sebastian is a saint and martyr who died in the third century. He is commonly depicted in art and literature tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows. Saint Sebastian is the protector from plague, so for queers, Sebastian is our patron and interceptor saint before God; consequently, he is unofficially the Patron Saint of male beauty and thus, a Gay Icon.
According to the Catholic Church’s official Acta Sanctorum, Sebastian was an officer in the Imperial Roman Guard who had secretly done many acts of love for the persecuted Christians. Sebastian was later made a captain in the Emperor’s Bodyguard by Emperor Diocletian. Sebastian was ”a favorite to the emperor”, meaning there was probably something special going on between emperor and captain. As an officer in this elite guard, Sebastian held a position that made it possible for him to give aid and comfort to Christian prisoners. His religious beliefs were eventually discovered, and when Emperor Diocletian discovered the truth of Sebastian’s faith, he ordered him to renounce Christianity, but when Sebastian refused, the emperor acted like a scorned lover because Sebastian liked Jesus better.
Diocletian had Sebastian shot with arrows and left for dead, but when Saint Irene went to recover his body, she found he was still alive and nursed him back to health. Against her wishes, Sebastian refused to flee Rome and instead, one day, he hung out on a staircase where he knew the emperor had to pass. Sebastian yelled at the emperor over of his cruelty to Christians. Emperor Diocletian was astonished that not only had someone expressed such beliefs so freely, he was startled that Sebastian had recovered from his execution. When he was done being startled, he ordered that Sebastian be seized, beat to death with spiked clubs, and his body thrown into a sewer.
Sebastian was taken from the sewers by his friends and buried on the Appian Way in Rome. In 367, a church was built over his grave.
Since then, iconic images of Sebastian impaled with arrows have appeared in depictions in art and literature. He’s even a rock star, appearing in R.E.M.‘s iconic Losing My Religion video.
Sebastian is almost always presented writhing in ecstasy, penetrated by arrows, and fixed in a dramatically contorted pose; the essence of s&m. This image remains his most popular portrayal: the bound and submissive, beautiful young man, penetrated by something. Or maybe, suggesting a ”coming out” followed by his survival after a public persecution.
In the 19th Century, Sebastian became a decadent androgynist in presentations by Oscar Wilde and his kind. Wilde used the pseudonym ”Sebastian Melmoth” on his release from prison and visited Sebastian’s grave while in Rome. Wilde wrote:
”…the vision of Saint Sebastian came before my eyes as I saw him at Genoa, a lovely brown boy, with crisp, clustering hair and red lips, raising his eyes with divine, impassioned gaze towards the Eternal Beauty of the opening Heavens.”
A decadent focus on Sebastian can also be seen in the works of Jean Cocteau, W. H. Auden, and Thomas Mann. Tennessee Williams loved Saint Sebastian and celebrated both his religious aspects as well as his queer tradition in his poem San Sebastiano De Sodoma.
As a patron saint warding off plague, Sebastian becomes especially relevant in this era of HIV/AIDS. He also is a patron saint for LGBTQ people because he did not deny who he really was when questioned. He was persecuted by those surprised by his audacity, and surviving his wounds, he confronted his persecutors.
Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656) was a Dutch Golden Age painter who became especially noted for his depiction of artificially lit scenes, receiving the nickname Gherardo delle Notti (“Gerard of the Nights”). Early in his career he visited Rome, where he had great success painting in a style influenced by Caravaggio. Following his return to the Netherlands he became a leading portrait painter. He cultivated the style of Caravaggio, often painting scenes illuminated by a candle. Honthorst was a prolific artist
Nicolas Régnier (1591-1667) was a painter and art dealer a French speaking part of Spanish Netherlands, who painted in Italy during the Baroque period. He painted Saint Sebastian Tended by Saint Irene three times, as well as a number of nearly-nude single figures of Saint Sebastian.
Juan Carreño de Miranda (1614 1685) was a Spanish painter of the Baroque period. A Nobleman, he understood the workings and psychology of the royal court, making his portraits of the Spanish royal family in an unprecedented documentary fashion. Most of his work are portraits of the royal family and court, though there are some altarpieces, early works commissioned by the church. He had a thing for Sebastian.
Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) was a Spanish painter and printmaker. He was called Lo Spagnoletto (“Little Spaniard”) by his friends and fans. Ribera was a leading painter of the Spanish school, although his work was mostly done in Italy.
Trophîme Bigot (1579-1650), also known as the Candlelight Master (Maître à la Chandelle), was a French painter of the Baroque era, active in Rome and his native Provence. Between 1620 and 1634, Bigot was in Italy, including Rome, because that’s where you went if you were a painter.
David Manzur Londoño was born in Colombia in 1928. He studied at the Art Students League and Pratt Institute in New York City, and received two consecutive Guggenheim Fellowships. Influenced by Spanish Baroque art, he paints still lifes, and, of course, Saint Sebastian.
Antoine “Anto” Carte (1886 – 1954) was a Belgian painter, born in Mons. He studied art at the academies of Mons, Brussels, and Paris. Late in his career he began designing posters and stained-glass windows. He also designed the 50 Belgian Francs banknote.
Alcide Joseph Lorentz (1813-1891), was a painter, illustrator and lithographer, ans a frequent exhibitor at the Paris Salons during the 1840s. As a painter, he did mostly scenes involving the campaigns of Napoleon. But he was particularly adept at doing caricatures of the leading figures of the day, including King Louis-Philippe, George Sand, Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt. It is quite possible that the depiction Sebastian was based on a well-known figure of the era.
San Sebastiano de Sodoma by Tennessee Williams
How did Saint Sebastian die?
Arrows pierced his throat and thigh
which only knew, before that time,
the dolors of a concubine.
Near above him, hardly over,
hovered hid gold martyr’s crown.
Even Mary from Her tower
of heaven leaned a little down
and as She leaned, She raised a corner
of a cloud through which to spy.
Sweetly troubled Mary murmured
as She watched the arrows fly.
And as the cup that was profaned
gave up its sweet, intemperate wine,
all the golden bells of heaven
praised an emperor’s concubine.
Mary, leaning from her tower
of heaven, dropped a tiny flower
but, privately, she must have wondered
if it were indeed wise to
let this boy in Paradise?