Last week I went to the National Gallery to do some research for my next book and spent a bunch of time taking photos of altarpieces that feature one of my favourite saints – Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes, soldiers, and people who want to die a saintly death. He was a big fav of medieval people as well, which is why we end up having great images like this to geek out over:
But, unlike a lot of my other favourite saints, Sebastian is not, in actual fact, a medieval saint. Instead he was alive some time around 256-288 CE. We don’t hear a lot about Sebastian in his own time, but references to him start popping up in the fourth century. He appears in the Chronograph of 354 which was a sort of calendar of texts written by the Pope’s engraver Furius Dionysius Filocalus (no idea what his dates are, sorry), but at that point all we know is that his martyrdom was commemorated on 20 January. Later he is again mentioned in the Expositio in Psalmum CXVIII, an exegetical commentary of Psalm 118 written by Saint Ambrose of Milan (c 339–c. 397). So OK, my boy is on the record as someone to take note of, cool.
It isn’t until we hit the fifth century that we start to get some stories about his life, specifically from the Passio Sancti Sebastiani. Unsurprisingly for a saint in the third century, so the legend goes, Sebastian was a victim of the Diocletian persecutions. Previous to that he had been living a pretty distinguished life, though. He had been in the Roman army and was eventually raised up to captain the Praetorian Guards under Diocletian (c. 242 – c. 311), who hadn’t clocked the fact that he was Christian. This all came to an end when two Christian twin brothers were arrested for, well, being Christian. The twins’ parents showed up to try to get them to renounce Christianity, but instead they got converted by Sebastian who was apparently, IDK just like fine with working for the guys who imprisoned Christians, but saw that as an opportunity or something. Look, it doesn’t really make sense to me either. He also converted a bunch of prisoners while he was at it and eventually a local Prefect, Chromatius. Following his conversion said Chromatius let all the Christian prisoners out, resigned his position, and retired.
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Anyway people started to wonder how all these Christians kept getting inside the jail when that wasn’t what the were arrested for, and eventually in 286 everyone connected Sebastian to all of the conversions. Diocletian denounced him and according to the twelfth-century Golden Legend, (which you can read all of, here), “commanded him to be led to the field and there to be bounden to a stake for to be shot at. And the archers shot at him till he was as full of arrows as an urchin is full of pricks, and thus left him there for dead.” I am absolutely quoting that specific quote for a reason.
While that many pricks would kill the average man, St Sebastian was just built different and was discovered all tied up to that pillar and alive. He was discovered by Irene of Rome (d. 288) who nursed him back to health. When he regained his health he decided to go yell at Diocletian for all of the Christian murder. He was arrested and beaten to death by cudgels, which worked this time, and his body was thrown in a sewer before being removed and taken to the catacombs.
St Sebastian was a popular saint in the medieval period for a couple of reasons. The first is that he, like lots of saints associated with arrows, was seen as an intercessor against plague. But more specifically he was believed ot have interceded during a pestilence in Rome in 680. Again, the Golden Legend tells us that “in the time of King Gumbert [Cunipert d.???] all Italy was smitten with so great a pestilence that unnethe [sic] they that were alive might bury the dead, and this pestilence was most at Rome and Pavia. Then the good angel was seen visibly of many, and an evil angel following bearing a staff whom he bade smite and slay, and as many strokes as he smote an house, so many dead persons were borne out of it. Then at last it was shewed to one by God’s grace that this pestilence should not cease till that they had made an altar to S. Sebastian at Pavia, which then was made in the church of S. Peter, and anon the pestilence ceased, and thither from Rome relics of S. Sebastian were brought.” Hooray! Anyway this was a pretty good reason to keep a saint around.
The other reason is because St Sebastian presented artists with the opportunity to paint the martyr as a thirsty little s who absolutely lived for the pain. I mean …
Now, look, I understand that I am a sex historian in the year of our Lord 2022, and I could understand if you took my interpretation here and said “For the love of God, Eleanor, it’s religious art. Can you stop being a weirdo?” And look, I get it. I do. But the thing is, this is really not about me saying that this artwork is sexual. Even people then admitted it. When the Reformation was taking off, for example one of the things that Protestants complained about what how horny all the Church are made them, in 1520, for example, one Protestant in Strasbourg complained: “…I often had based thoughts when I looked upon the female saints on the altars. For no courtesan can dress of adorn herself more sumptuously and shamelessly than they nowadays fashion the Mother of God, Saint Barbara, Katherine, and the other saints.” Now my guy is clearly into women so he was busy eyeing up all the ladies, but say you were not, in fact into women. Or you were into women and men? Well, BAM. There’s St. Sebastian for you, in all his subby glory to think about.
Indeed, there is a strong tradition of reading Sebastian as a sort of dream twink. His was one of the few male bodies that artists had a reason to paint, or sculpt, in the medieval and early modern period, and so they really went to town on it. There is no particular reason that Sebastian, a fucking Praetorian Guard would look like Troye Sivan instead of, say, just a regular old army dude. But artists went the extra mile to make sure that he was out here looking as femme, cut, and absolutely into being full of pricks as possible. And frankly, god bless them, because this allowed wandering minds and eyes a nice little bit of respite in the middle of a long sermon.
Saint Sebastian is now a fully established gay icon, since we have a conception of being gay, rather than simply being a sodomite, and also are allowed to talk about it. As Richard A Kaye put it, “Contemporary gay men have seen in Sebastian at once a stunning advertisement for homosexual desire (indeed, a homoerotic ideal) and a prototypical portrait of tortured closet case.”
It is for this reason that I squeal with delight every time I see a Saint Sebastian in the wild (e.g. a church, or museum). We absolutely love to see the lengths that people will go to in order to stretch their erotic imaginations. I stan forever. Invented in the late antique period – perfected in the medieval. A perfect saint. No notes.
 “Of S. Sebastian, and first the interpretation of his name”, in, Golden Legend, Vol. 2, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/goldenlegend/GoldenLegend-Volume2.asp#Sebastian, <Accessed 6 April 2022>.
 Neu-Karsthans, ‘Gesprech biechlin neüw Karsthns’, quoted in Michael Baxandall, The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980), p. 88.
 Richard A. Kaye, “Losing His Religion: Saint Sebastian as Contemporary Gay Martyr”. In Horne, Peter; Lewis, Reina (eds.). Outlooks: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities and Visual Cultures. (New York: Routledge, 1996). p. 105.
Ⓒ Eleanor Janega, 2022
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