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Saint Sebastian

Roman Soldier and Christian Saint (died in 287) who was martyred for his missionary work.

Saint Sebastian was a Roman soldier and Christian saint. He was a member of the Praetorian Guard at Rome and served as personal guard to the Roman emperors Diocletian and Maximian. A devote Christian, he became known for consoling prisoners awaiting martyrdom. He was persecuted by the Roman rulers because of his, often successful, attempts to convert other soldiers and members of the Roman nobility to Christianity. He was arrested, tied naked to a post and shot with arrows. Though the executioners believed they had left him for dead, he was found by Irene, the widow of the martyr Castulus, who nursed him back to health. Rather than fleeing from Rome, Sebastian publicly defied Diocletian and Maximian by declaring his Christian faith at a Pagan ceremony they had organised. Diocletian arrested him and ordered that he be beaten to death. He was killed by flagellation at the Hippodrome on the Palatine Hill in 287 AD, his corpse thrown in the sewer. A woman, named Lucina rescued the corpse and had him reburied besides Sts Peter and Paul at the catacombs on the Appian Way. He is now considered the third patron saint of Rome, the patron saint of soldiers and archers, and came to be regarded as a protector against disease and plague. He has more recently gained popular appeal as a contemporary gay icon.

Sebastian was a favourite subject of medieval and Renaissance artists, who welcomed the challenge to paint the saint’s contorted body and look of anguish. The Walker Art Gallery has several paintings and drawings of Saint Sebastian produced in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Works in our collection by Bartolomeo di Giovanni, Gaspare Diziani and Maerten De Vos, like most images from this period, show the Saint as a handsome, semi-naked, young man. They present the moment of his martyrdom as being when he was shot with arrows. They depict him tied to a tree or post, his bare torso pierced with arrows, often seemingly deriving a spiritual pleasure from his pain. Many of the most famous representations of Saint Sebastian have been produced by artists such as Sandro Botticelli and Il Sodoma who have engaged in homosexual acts. Research by Curator of Foreign Art, Xanthe Brooke, into Bartolomeo di Giovanni’s life, for example, revealed the artist was himself accused of engaging in sodomy in 1492. There is no known evidence to suggest that these artists interest in Saint Sebastian was directly connected to their sexuality.

It is thought, however, that the abundance of homoerotic portrayals of Saint Sebastian and his naked, muscular, arrow-pierced in visual art, led directly to him acquiring a cult following within late nineteenth century gay communities. The saint’s youthful good looks and physique made him a symbol of homoerotic desire and male beauty. Others were drawn to the way depictions of the saint’s portrayed him as a ‘tortured soul’, connecting the shame, rejection and loneliness they experienced within society to the saint’s experiences of persecution. Oscar Wilde, for example, even took on his name when he lived in France, after his release from prison where he was serving his sentence for gross indecency.

This popular image of Saint Sebastian has endured. The artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman’s 1976 film of the saint’s life, ‘Sebastiane’, caused controversy in its treatment of the martyr as a gay icon. More recently, Sebastian has appeared on the front cover of gay magazine ‘reFRESH’. Since the onset of the AIDS epidemic, some LGBT people have also found solace in this image of Saint Sebastian as a protector against disease. Contemporary artists, such as Wolfgang Tillman’s, for example, have drawn on this idea to produce new works with Saint Sebastian as a central motif.
  • Gender
  • Relationship
    Subject of
  • Nationality
    Unknown or unrecorded
  • Born
    Unknown or unrecorded
  • Place of birth
    Unknown or unrecorded
  • Died
    287 AD
  • Place of death
    Europe: Southern Europe: Italy: Rome
  • Cause of death
    Execution by Flagellation
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