Saint Sébastien by Nicholas Régnier (1588- 1667)
There is nothing particularly unusual about a Gay Icon who is young, beautiful, and shirtless. But what if this icon came from the history and teachings of Christianity?
Saint Sebastian was martyred in 287, but even today he continues to beg the question of what makes for a Gay Idol, including the appropriation from Catholic Church history and its martyrs to the visual, literary, film and stage works of many LGBTQ artists.
He has had various images throughout history: “The Plague Saint” during the Middle Ages; the shimmering loin-clothed beauty of The Renaissance, writhing in the ecstasy of the arrows that pierce him; a decadent androgynous figure in the late 19th century; Sebastian has long been known as the gay people’s saint.
According to the Church, Sebastian was a young nobleman from Milan, serving under the Emperors Diocletian and Maximian, who came to the rescue of two Christian soldiers, Marcellinus and Mark, and thereby came out of the closet about his own Christianity. Diocletian insisted that Sebastian be shot to death by his fellow archers, leaving him for dead.
Sebastian survived after having been nursed back to health by Saint Irene. Diocletian ordered a second execution, and this time Sebastian was beaten to death by soldiers in The Hippodrome.
Sebastian’s success as a saint is his ability to be all things to all people. Along with the famous arrows, the symbol of his martyrdom is the rope that binds his hands; yet Sebastian just won’t be tied down. His face never reveals the agonies of his body. His beauty and his pain are eternally separated from each other. This made him proof against plague in the 1300s, and, in these terrible times, it still does.
Régnier was a Flemish painter who studied in Antwerp, but was one of the few painters from Northern Europe to have lived and painted in Rome during another Gay Saint, Caravaggio’s lifetime. Not a whole lot is known about Régnier’s life, but records show that he was in Rome in the roaring 1620s.
He later relocated to Venice, which is where things were really happening. In Venice, he moved away from Caravaggism, developing his own highly decorative style. Régnier’s work in Venice was affected by the paintings of the German painter Johan Lys, who was also working in Venice. His influence is particularly evident in Régnier’s newly painterly depiction of naked male flesh. Régnier, or Nicki Renieri, as he was known in Italy, remained in Venice for the rest of his life. In addition to painting, he began collecting and selling antiques, which must have been super old considering this was already the Baroque Period. He had an important collection of art by other artists, cookie jars, and assorted ephemera.
Saint Sébastien, the painting, now lives in the Musée Des Beaux-Arts in Rouen. Sebastian’s poor, pierced body is at San Sebastiano Fuori Le Mura in Rome, although bits and pieces of him can be found in other holy places including Saint Medard Abbey in Soissons, which houses his cranium.
Régnier’s other work, and he was prolific, can been seen at Galleria Uffizi, Musée du Louvre, Muzeum Narodowe in Warsaw, Museum Of Fine Arts in Budapest, The Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, The Detroit Institute Of Arts, The Hermitage Museum, and The Fogg at Harvard University.