The image of Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows has been strongly identified in the last century as a male gay icon. Yet there is nothing in the history of Sebastian and his martyrdom that suggests he was particularly gay while he is the protector of urban police and archers.
My introduction to this different iconography of Saint Sebastian began when I was still a university student and after seeing the film about Mishima’s life I bought one of his books Colors. Mishima was a Japanese homosexual writer when this was still considered a crime and with his friends communicated with symbols and images taken from tradition.
Until the Middle Ages the image of Saint Sebastian was associated with that of San Rocco and the small churches dedicated to the two saints were outside the city’s gates to protect against the plague and other evils. Then everything changed from the Renaissance when they started to represent him in art as a naked man tied to a column and pierced with arrows.
But it was not the arrows that killed him and to understand this evolution we need to retrace his history and that of his iconography.
Saint Sebastian was an ancient Christian martyr assassinated in the year 288 by order of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. At one point he was tied and arrows were shot at this body and he was believed dead. Instead he was still alive and was cared for by Saint Irene of Rome until he recovered to return to life.
After healing, he again accused the Emperor of cruelty to Christians. Enraged, the Emperor once again ordered his execution. This time he was beaten to death on January 20, 288.
Little is known about his love life, so his ancient popularity among gay men is based mainly on how he was painted in previous times. Since the Renaissance, most of the time Sebastian has been portrayed as a young man almost naked in a mixture of pleasure and pain. The pose is almost always the languid one of a man tied to a column: the beautiful face almost in ecstasy and a perfect body.
All the painters competed to portray a desirable young man pierced by arrows. Sebastian’s homosexuality, therefore, derives from an invention by the Italian Renaissance painters who set aside the adult and hirsute saint of medieval iconography and focused on one single detail: the torso. From the sixteenth century Sebastian is first of all known for his beautiful torso of a Roman soldier with a double life: that of imperial guard by day and of Christian by night.
For the definitive transition to a different and secular iconography we must wait for the writers of the twentieth century. In 1911 D’Annunzio, during his French exile, wrote the theatrical text Martyre de Saint Sébastien (The martyrdom of Saint Sebastian) which is represented with the music of Claude Debussy. The saint is also represented by the moves of Ida Rubinstein, the famous androgynous dancer who in this way enhanced femininity and laid claims to all past centuries in which young male actors played female roles.
After D’Annunzio there were films, shows, paintings, sculptures, photographs, exhibitions, novels, illustrations, poems, songs, mosaics, that have had Sebastian as the key feature. Some artists ideally elected him as their patron, since they considered themselves derided, misunderstood and “shaken” by others. Scrolling through the web you can find many artists who have portrayed themselves as Saint Sebastian with short dresses, tied to a tree and with arrows.
And with this, Saint Sebastiano definitely became the saint most loved by gays.
Throughout the twentieth century the name Sebastian has been used by many writers to create the doubt of an ambiguous sexuality around some of their characters, such as Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh or that in Suddenly, Last Summer of Tennessee Williams (which was also an incredible hit film).
It should be remembered that the same writer Oscar Wilde chose to use the name Sebastian as his pseudonym after being released from prison.
In the 80’s, the arrival of AIDS brought to life the image of Saint Sebastian that became the favourite theme of the artist Tony de Carlo who started his series on Saint Sebastian. Since then the collection has increased to more than 40 representations.
Even the Californian artist Rick Herold returns to painting a Saint Sebastian putting him against a backdrop coloured with cartoons, a style that recalls that of the artist Keith Haring. Herold paints his pictures with enamel on the reverse side of transparent Plexiglas.
The Florida artist JR Leveroni once again uses the saint to recount the death of a contemporary gay martyr with the opera San Sebastián y Matt Shepard yuxtapuestos (Matthew Shepard’s Way of the Cross (1976-1998). His work is composed by cubist style paintings portraying homosexual martyrs who suffer in a tenuous way, with just a trace of blood.
An important biographical film is Sebastiane, directed by the independent British director Derek Jarman. The film in Latin, in 1976, has sparked controversy for its homoeroticism and is considered a milestone in LGBT cinema. What D’Annunzio suggests in his Martyre, Derek chose to make explicit in ’76.
But the myth of the icon of Saint Sebastian has surpassed every boundary and even a powerful Japanese author like Mishima, also a homosexual, dedicates an entire chapter to him in the book Colors in which he lingers to describe his portraits with passion. Mishima himself is portrayed as a martyr.
With this different understanding, we can say that perhaps St. Sebastian is the saint who has resisted most of all the passage of time. But I do not think the church is very happy with this extreme modernity. Almost every Italian church has a painting of Saint Sebastian and after reading this article I’m sure you will not see it with the same eyes.
In any case, Saint Sebastian has been made truly immortal!