Forbearance in the face of fate, beauty constantly under torture, are not merely passive. They are a positive achievement, an explicit triumph; and the figure of Sebastian is the most beautiful symbol, if not of art as a whole, yet certainly of the art we speak of here.Thomas Mann, ‘Death in Venice’ (1912)
Recently I realised that I never addressed St Sebastian in my Delphyne blog posts (Sexuality, Martyrdom, Gender, and Smoke & Visions), despite his image repeatedly appearing in books and images I came across as part of my research. Sebastian’s myth and subsequent depictions in art bring together many of the key motifs of the Delphyne project: martyrdom, sexuality, transgressive eroticism, religion and violence. Sebastian even shares the same fate as Delphyne, their bodies both shot through with arrows, and I used his image directly in some of my digital collages. Delphyne is an intersex character, so referencing a male character in this way helped to suggest this gender fluidity. However, in my writings on Delphyne I seemed to focus on female or non-binary characters in religious history, and St Sebastian represents an unambiguous male-on-male eroticism.
Active around the 3rd century CE, Sebastian, a soldier in the Roman army, was discovered by the Romans to be a Christian practicing in secret, and was punished by being tied to a post and shot with arrows. Despite ending up with ‘more pricks than a hedgehog’, however, he miraculously survived and was nursed back to health by an onlooking Christian woman called Irene. Upon regaining his health, he went to confront the Romans, and was beaten to death with cudgels (a club or short truncheon). His body was flung into an open sewer, only to be later rescued by another onlooking Christian woman who gave him a proper burial.
St Sebastian is the patron saint of plague victims, soldiers and, of course, archers. His feast day also happens to be on my birthday, 20th January. Sebastian remains one of the most popular Christian figures in art, and one of the most instantly recognisable, portrayed universally as a naked young man tied up and shot full of arrows. As far as early Christian martyrs go, he is also a bit of a gay icon, and this reinvention has ensured his cultural survival to the present day.
St Sebastian has become, since the 19th century, synonymous with homo-eroticism. His image can simultaneously be admired erotically, and sympathised with internally. In a time before ubiquitous pornography, his nakedness could be enjoyed without arousing suspicion in the form of works of art or religious artifacts; devotion masking a deeper desire. Magazines and art journals such as The Artist (began 1889, UK) and The Studio (began 1893, UK) emerging from the Aesthetic movement made similar thin excuses for the enjoyment of Sebastian-like images of beautiful youths, as an innocent appreciation of physical perfection. However, not long before the name ‘Sebastian’ had already become a code, part of the secret language of a furtive subculture; Oscar Wilde, the most famous Aesthete, used the pen-name Sebastian Melmoth; he had his character Dorian Grey wear a St Sebastian pin. The 19th century Aesthetes cemented in Western culture the association with figures such as St Sebastian and homo-eroticism, but also between art and homosexuality as a whole.
In the classical paintings of the saint, his wounds are obviously orifices, the arrows obviously phallic, his agony could be sadistic or masochistic depending on the viewer’s identification with the martyr or with the abuser. The relationship between homosexual and sado-masochistic impulses has been well-documented. Without doubt this cliche originates from a homophobic perception, lumping together abhorrent sexualities into convenient bundles. In the 20th century, however, sympathies shifted and this relationship started to mirror the feelings of shame, guilt and torment that almost ubiquitously accompanied the sexual development of queer individuals.
The arrows have eaten into the tense, fragrant, youthful flesh and are about to consume his body from within with flames of supreme agony and ecstasy. But there is no flowing blood, nor yet the host of arrows seen in other pictures of Sebastian’s martyrdom. Instead, two lone arrows cast their tranquil and graceful shadows upon the smoothness of his skin, like the shadows of a bough falling upon a marble stairway.Yukio Mishima, ‘Confessions of a Mask’ (1949)
Mishima’s protagonist in his semi-autobiographical novel quoted above experiences his first ejaculation while studying a reproduction of Reni’s Sebastian. He later cites this moment as the beginning of an internal journey into self-loathing, unrequited love and violent desire. Either in this negative, destructive interpretation, or in a more positive inspirational message of the triumph of grace over suffering, gay men could use the image of St. Sebastian to express secret feelings and find strength, hope and release.
However, the link between St Sebastian and homo-eroticism was not so ingrained in cultural imagination to prevent alternative uses of his image – let’s not forget he was the patron saint of soldiers, and an ironic image to borrow for a legendary pacifist. In 1967, Muhammad Ali posed for one of the most iconic magazine covers of all time. Compositionally, the image is stunningly simple and provocative. The clothes boxers typically wear and his athletic physique elegantly explain his muscular nakedness in a way the gratuitous nudity of previous representations fail to do. The brilliant white of his shoes, shorts and background highlights his shining African-American skin, the vibrant red of his blood. His arms are tied behind his back, head is rolled back in an expression of heroic agony, his eyes staring into the distance. At the time the world heavyweight champion was facing widespread media controversy, criminal charges, and being stripped of his titles, against a backdrop of turmoil in American history, particularly the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. St Sebastian miraculously survived his horrific ordeal, and we know 50 years later that Ali’s legacy also survived unscathed.
St Sebastian has been a queer icon almost 200 years now, but it could be that in the time of the 21st century COVID-19 global pandemic his role as patron saint of plague victims is now his primary function, for the first time since the Middle Ages.
Further reading: this article on St Sebastian in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, quoted at the beginning of this post. And this blog on art in fiction has the full section of Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask detailing the protagonist’s discovery of the St Sebastian image. Here’s a fuller discussion of Muhammad Ali’s photo shoot and the historical context surrounding it.