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St. Sebastian: The Patron Saint of Homosexuals

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Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni (c. 1616)

There is hardly anything unusual or particularly compelling about a gay icon who is young, beautiful, white, shirtless, and baby-faced. But what if this same boyish icon had emerged from a key historical antagonist of same-sex desire: the teachings of Christianity?

The case of Saint Sebastian, who was martyred in 287, animates several complex questions about the evolution of a gay idol, not the least of which is his so-called appropriation from the hallowed pages of Church history and martyrology to the visual, literary, and filmic works of numerous gay artists.

Although he has had various embodiments throughout history—plague saint in the Middle Ages, shimmering youth of Apollonian beauty throughout the Renaissance, “decadent” androgyne in the late nineteenth century—Sebastian has long been known as the homosexual’s saint.

Precisely when and how this role evolved may be related to details of St. Sebastian’s life, the earliest reference to which can be found in the Martyrology of 354 A.D., which refers to him as a young nobleman from either Milan or Narbonne, whose official capacity was commander of a company of archers of the imperial bodyguard.

According to the Church’s official Acta Sanctorum, Sebastian, serving under the emperors Diocletian and Maximian, came to the rescue of Christian soldiers, Marcellinus and Mark, and thereby confessed his own Christianity. Diocletian insisted that Sebastian be shot to death by his fellow archers; these orders were followed, and Sebastian was left for dead.

What is often neglected in later accounts is that Sebastian survived this initial attack after having been nursed by a “pious woman,” St Irene of Rome. Diocletian was required to order a second execution, and this time Sebastian was beaten to death by soldiers in the Hippodrome.

School of Nicolas Regnier, Saint Sebastian, 17th century

These details—based on accounts written centuries after Sebastian’s death and therefore largely apocryphal—may have helped form Sebastian’s subsequent reputation as a homosexual martyr since his story constitutes a kind of “coming out” tale followed by his survival of an execution that may be read symbolically as a penetration.

Renaissance representations of Saint Sebastian—mostly paintings of a tender, loin-clothed youth writhing in the ecstasy of the arrows that pierce him—are perhaps ground zero for his appointment as the patron saint of gay sensuality.

And for seemingly obvious reasons. Sebastian’s supple, near-naked body; the wink-wink symbolism of the penetrating arrows; his thrown-back head expressing a mixture of pleasure and pain; and his inviting gaze all readily contribute to his homoerotic appeal. But Sebastian’s entry into gay cultures in the first place most certainly involves his origins as an emblem of Christian godliness and martyrdom.

Same-sex desire is often, on many levels, about the crossing of lines, the overturning of sacred norms, the pleasure of the forbidden. Both the story of Sebastian and his subsequent role in modern gay cultures epitomize this subversive impulse: Sebastian revels in the pleasure of his own martyrdom as gay men revel in gazing upon an off-limits emblem of Christian holiness. By all accounts, Sebastian is a very good “bad object choice.”

Possibly his role as a plague saint may have generated associations between Sebastian and what, in a nineteenth-century medical context, was represented as a disease, homosexuality.

The question of whether Sebastian himself was gay is largely moot. While some historical records suggest a notable affection between the saint and his male superiors, after almost two thousand years Sebastian’s sexuality is not only greatly speculative, but also rather inconsequential.

However, while it is doubtful that a buried homosexual existence could justify his current camp popularity, it seems equally doubtful that his homoerotic associations can be explained away as the superficial afterthoughts, revisions, or cross-readings of a willful contemporary gay purview.

Saint Sebastian is not just represented in the visual arts during the Renaissance, but also in the written arts as well. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1600), for example, the character of Sebastian, saved from a shipwreck by Antonio, is the intense focus of Antonio’s love: “And to his image, which methought did promise / Most venerable worth, did I devotion.”

Mosaic of St. Sebastian, ca. 682 in San Pietro in Vincoli

Sebastian has been reinvented numerous times in history, from the middle-aged man in the mosaic at the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, not far from San Sebastiano Fuori le Mura, where the martyr’s punctured remains have lain since the year 287 AD. Here, in a niche to the left, is the seventh-century mosaic of a middle-aged man, bearded and in Byzantine court dress. Perhaps Sebastian’s oddest reinvention came in Thomas Mann’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “Grace in suffering – that is the heroism symbolised by St Sebastian,” said Mann; then, warming to his theme, he added: “The image may be bold, but I am tempted to claim this heroism for the German mind and German art.” The date was 1929. A decade later, German gays such as Mann were being rounded up and tortured in the Nazi concentration camps.

All of which is to say that the secret of Sebastian’s success may lie in his ability to be all things to all men. Along with the famous arrows, the symbol of his martyrdom is the rope that binds his hands; yet the shape-shifting Sebastian just won’t be tied down. The novelist and political activist Susan Sontag pointed out that his face never registers the agonies of his body, that his beauty and his pain are eternally divorced from each other. This made him proof against plague in 1348, and, in these ungodly times, it still does.

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1 Comment

  1. Andres Fernandes says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I am traveling in Mexico and Sebastian, in his diverse glories, seems to be everywhere.

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