Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian


Although the date Saint Sebastian died (let alone the year*) cannot be known for certain, the event is commemorated by the Catholic Church on this day, which makes this as good a day as any for me to write about it. The fact of the matter is that so little is known about him - and his story is so close to the myths of Apollo anyway - that he may, in fact, have never existed; it wouldn't be the first time Christians made someone up in their relentless drive to wipe out every belief that came before them... Not by a long shot!

A n y w a y... For those of you unfamiliar with the story, apparently Sebastian was serving as a captain of the Praetorian Guard while secretly practicing Christianity; he was discovered, naturally enough, and was sentenced to death during Roman Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians. In fact, despite being riddled with arrows once he miraculously didn't die of his wounds, and so had to be martyred twice! Still, whether he's real or not Saint Sebastian has precisely the kind of realness we value above all others here at the Pop Culture Institute - namely, that he exists in an abundance of art. He is, in fact, one of the most frequently depicted of the early Christian martyrs**.

Almost always shown as a handsome young man - as he is in the work shown above, by Hans Holbein the Elder - he has also been captured on canvas by Botticelli, Perugino, Titian, Pollaiuolo, Giovanni Bellini, Guido Reni (who painted him seven times), Mantegna (three times), Hans Memling, Gerrit van Honthorst, Luca Signorelli, El Greco, Honore Daumier, John Singer Sargent and Louise Bourgeois among many others. A 1976 film about him - Sebastiane, directed by Derek Jarman - drew on the homoerotic aspects inherent in many of the depictions of the saint, and in doing so drew a great deal of controversy*** to both the film and himself. All of which means that, in addition to his patronage of soldiers, plagues, arrows, and athletes, Saint Sebastian has become the de facto patron saint of gay men as well.

*Possibly 288 CE.
Alongside the likes of Joan of Arc, for instance.
Or, to use a more correct term, publicity.
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