Saturday, November 3, 2007

Saint Sebastian: The Homoerotic Patron of Gay Men

Cynthia Karalla. "St. Sebastian" (2002-2003)

Saint Sebastian

(Traditionally died January 20, 287, in Rome)

Sebastian was a Christian saint and martyr, who is said to have died under the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the third century CE. He is commonly depicted in art and literature tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows. He is the Patron Saint of soldiers generally, of infantrymen particularly, of athletes generally, of archers in general and municipal police officers. In addition, Saint Sebastian is considered as a protector from plague, and celebrated answers to prayer for his protection against the plague are related of Rome in 680, Milan in 1575, and Lisbon in 1599. In the LGBT community, Sebastian is considered as our patron and interceptor saint before God; consequently, he has unofficially become the Patron Saint of youth and male beauty, as well as a primary homoerotic icon for gay men.

KrayeL Art Studio. "The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian II" (2005)

The details of Sebastian’s martyrdom were first elaborated by Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), in his sermon (number XX) on the 118th Psalm. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, stated that Sebastian came from Milan and that he was already venerated there in the 4th century. According to the Catholic Church’s official Acta Sanctorum, Sebastian was an officer in the imperial bodyguard and had secretly done many acts of love and charity for his Christian brethren.

Guido Reni. "St Sebastian" (1615-1616)

Guido Reni. "St Sebastian" (1617-1619)

The Martyr in Popular Legend

According to his legend (for little more than the fact of his martyrdom can be proved about Saint Sebastian), he was born at Narbonne, in Gaul, but his parents were of Milan, and raised in that city. Sebastian was a fervent servant of Christ, and though his natural inclinations gave him aversion to a military life, but in the mind to be better able, without suspicion, to assist the confessors and martyrs in their suffering, he went to Rome and entered the army under the emperor Carinus about the year 283. Sebastian was later named captain in the Praetorian Guard (the emperor’s bodyguard) by Emperor Diocletian (it has been inferred that Sebastian was “a favorite to the emperor”, but there remains speculation as to whether this favoritism refers to Sebastian’s position within the guard, or whether it suggests a sexual relationship between emperor and captain). As an officer in the elite guard, Sebastian held a position that allowed him to give aid and comfort to Christian prisoners. His religious beliefs were eventually discovered, and an enraged Diocletian ordered Sebastian executed (it has been suggested that when the emperor discovered Sebastian’s faith he ordered the captain renounce Christianity, but when Sebastian refused and chose Christ rather than him, the emperor acted as a scorned lover).

Pietro Perugino. "Saint Sebastian" (c. 1490-1500)

Sebastian was shot with arrows and left for dead, but when St. Irene (the widow of St. Castulus) went to recover his body, she found he was still alive and nursed him back to health. Against her wishes, Sebastian refused to flee Rome and instead placed himself one day on a staircase where the emperor was to pass. Sebastian intercepted the emperor and accosted him, denouncing the emperor for his cruelty to Christians. Diocletian was astonished that not only had someone expressed such beliefs so freely, he was startled that Sebastian had recovered from his apparent execution. The emperor quickly recovered from his surprise, however, and gave the orders that Sebastian be seized and beat to death with cudgels, and his body thrown into a common sewer. The chronicler of the 4th century Deposito martyrum mentions that Sebastian was taken from the sewers and buried on the Appian Way in Rome. In 367 a basilica (one of the seven churches of Rome) was built over his grave. Much of the life of Sebastian are unhistorical stories and suspicious of true belief, but much have come from Sebastian’s martyrdom.

Chris Channing. "Body performance as St. Sebastian" (1991)

The Martyr in Popular Culture

Versions of the iconic image of Sebastian impaled with arrows has appeared in numerous depictions in art and literature. Among them are George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four makes a reference to Saint Sebastian when Winston fantasizes about tying another character, Julia, to a stake naked and shooting her “full of arrows like Saint Sebastian”. References to Sebastian have also appeared as religious imagery in R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” video, as paintings in V for Vendetta, and even in "The Simpsons".

Robert Sherer. "American Martyrdom" (2007)

The utilization of Saint Sebastian as an artistic representation was first done as a mosaic in the Basilica of Saint Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, between 527 and 565. Another early representation is in a mosaic in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, which probably belongs to the year 682, and shows the martyr as a full grown, bearded man in court dress. It was not until the Renaissance when Sebastian was portrayed as the sinuously twisted youth, naked except for an exiguous loincloth. This modern version of Sebastian almost always presents him writhing in ostensibly religious ecstasy, penetrated by arrows, and fixed in a dramatically contorted pose (suggesting the epitome of sado-masocism). Sebastian quickly became the central theme in a sexual counter-myth. It is no wonder then that he has become a homoerotic icon and has long been known as the homosexual’s saint.

Pierre et Gilles. "St. Sebastian" (1987)

During the Renaissance there were few other current subjects with male nudes other than Christ. Sebastian began to appear in many prints and paintings by such artists as Sandro Botticelli, Andrea Mantegna, Guido Reni (whose painting so captivated Yukio Mishima), Giuseppi Cesari, Carlo Saraceni, Giovanni Bazzi (known as “Il Sodoma” due to his proclivity for painting and consorting with young men), Tintoretto, Titian, Girgione, Perugino, El Greco, and others. During this time, Sebastian as martyr became recast as a beautiful youth submissively receptive to his arrow-ridden fate. This image remains one of the most popular portrayals linked to homoeroticism – the bound and submissive young man, to be symbolically penetrated by objects other than arrows. As well, the legend has become apocryphal; suggesting a “coming out” story followed by his survival after a public “persecution”.

Giovanni Bazzi ("Il Sodoma"). "San Sebastian" (1525)

Throughout later centuries, Sebastian continued to be prized by artists who saw in him a figure of Hellenic loveliness. In the nineteenth century, Sebastian became a decadent androgyny, shimmering in youthful Apollonian beauty in presentations by Oscar Wilde, aesthetisist Walter Pater, and novelist Anatole France. Wilde, who used the pseudonym “Sebastian Melmoth” on his release from prison, regarded Reni’s St. Sebastian as the artists’ most beautiful work, and visited Sebastian’s grave while in Rome. Caught up in the emotion of Sebastian’s passion, Wilde later stated, “the vision of Guido’s Saint Sebastian came before my eyes as I saw him at Genoa, a lovely brown boy, with crisp, clustering hair and red lips, raising his eyes with divine, impassioned gaze towards the Eternal Beauty of the opening Heavens”. Pater, less dramatic, but not less devoted, wrote the tale of “Sebastian von Storck” (1886) where the martyr is again a death-courting passive youth. For France, Sebastian became a sadomasochistic icon of deliberate perversity in The Red Lily (1894).

Fred Holland Day. "St. Sebastian" (1907)

Gay artists and critics continued Sebastian’s portrayal as submissively sinuous youth throughout the 20th century. Saint Sebastian appeared centrally in the innovative work of French painters Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, and the photographs of American photographer F. Holland Day, who created a sequence of images of the martyr modeled on working-class youths. A decadent focus was exhibited in the works of Jean Cocteau, poet T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Franz Kafka, Rainier Rilke, W. H. Auden, and Thomas Mann. In Mann’s novella Death in Venice, the “Sebastian-Figure” is hailed as the supreme emblem of Apollonian beauty, that is, artistry of differentiated forms, beauty as measured by discipline, proportion; essentially, a “heroism born of weakness” which characterizes poise amidst plain acceptance of one’s fate. Sebastian was also mentioned in Yukio Mishima’s autobiographical Confessions of a Mask (1949) ties the narrator’s homosexual awakening to his discovery of a copy of Reni’s "St. Sebastian".

Kishin Shinoyana. "Mishima as St. Sebastian" (1966)

Tennessee Williams, who converted to Catholicism, was also familiar with the tale of Saint Sebastian and celebrated both the religious aspects as well as the homosexual tradition in his poem “San Sebastiano de Sodoma” (included at the conclusion of this blog entry). Other artists continued to utilize the homoerotic facets of the Saint Sebastian legend in fetish paintings such as Klaus Bodanze’s "St. Sebastian in Leather", Alfred Courmes’ "St. Sebastian Sailor", photographer Anthony Gayton (whose photograph of St. Sebastian, depicts a submissive young man who looks upward in either protection from God, or awaits punishment), and Julian Schnabel linking him with the devastation of AIDS in Fox Farm Paintings. It is again, as a patron saint warding off a plague where Sebastian becomes relevant to those living through this era of AIDS.

Anthony Gayton. "Saint Sebastian" (2000)

The essence of Saint Sebastian maintains a connection for gay men to a Christian heritage, reminding many of us that we are neither forgotten, nor rejected by the Christianity’s true brethren. Sebastian also becomes for us a patron saint of subcultural representation that, executed as a result of rejecting Diocletian’s love, stands as a symbol of radical isolationism. He is like us, isolated from the society where he hides his identity, but does not deny who he is when questioned. He is like us in, while “coming out”, is persecuted by those surprised by his audacity. He is like us, in that surviving his wounds, he confronts and accosts his persecutors. He is like us, in that he is a homoerotically charged object of desire.

Ted Fusby. "St. Sebastian" (2001)

"San Sebastiano de Sodoma"
Tennessee Williams
How did Saint Sebastian die?
Arrows piereced his throat and thigh
which only knew, before that time,
the dolors of a concubine.
Near above him, hardly over,
hovered hid gold martyr's crown.
Even Mary from Her tower
of heaven leaned a little down
and as She leaned, She raised a corner
of a cloud through which to spy.
Sweetly troubled Mary murmured
as She watched the arrows fly.
And as the cup that was profaned
gave up its sweet, intemperate wine,
all the golden bells of heaven
praised an emperor's concubine.
Mary, leaning from her tower
of heaven, dropped a tiny flower
but, privately, she must have wondered
if it were indeed wise to
let this boy in Paradise?