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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

St. Sebastian

St. Sebastian Tended by St. Irene, 1620, Bassetti Marcantonio
St. Sebastian, 1474,
Sandro Botticelli,
one of the earliest.
A person killed for what he or she believes in has traditionally been termed a martyr. Down through the centuries, especially the past five-hundred years, paintings of martyrs (usually of the Christian variety) have proven to be a rich trove of energizing subject matter. Among them, second only to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ himself, one martyrdom stands in second place, far ahead of whichever saint might be in third, as having intrigued artists most consistently (mostly painters but also a few sculptors and more recently, photographers). If you've ever seen a painting of a semi-nude male figure (usually) shot full of arrows, then you're looking at a martyrdom of St. Sebastian.
St. Sebastian, 1499,
Albrecht Durer
According to third-century church tradition, however, St. Sebastian, despite what artists such as Botticelli (left) and Durer (right) would have us believe, was not martyred by bowmen. The story of Sebastian begins in Milan during the third century AD when he was appointed a captain of the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian and Maximian, who were unaware that he was a Christian. Later, in Rome, Sebastian is credited with at least one miracle and the conversion of sixteen members of the Praetorian Guard to Christianity. One of his converts, Chromatius, a jailer, set all his prisoners free. Upon hearing of this, Diocletian ordered Sebastian tied to a post and shot full of arrows, according to one account, until he looked like a sea urchin. Another Christian saint, Irene, came to retrieve his body only to discover he was not dead. She took him home and miraculously nursed him back to health--the martyrdom that wasn't a martyrdom (top).
St. Sebastian Thrown into the Cloaca Maxima, 1512, Lodovico Carracci
St. Sebastian, 1475, Antonio
Pollaiuolo, considered one of
the best versions, and my
 first encounter with the saint.
Needless to say, Sebastian was more than a little pissed off at Diocletian. Arrows, even when they're not fatal, tend to sting a little. Around 288 AD, apparently thinking, if he could survive one martyrdom, he could survive another, the would-be saint had some rather impolite words with Diocletian as the emperor passed by on the street. The emperor this time ordered that Sebastian be beaten to death by his soldiers. Then, to add insult to fatal injury, his body was unceremoniously dumped into the Cloaca Maxima (big sewer, above). Thus, he's sometimes referred to as the saint who was martyred twice. The interesting element, insofar as art is concerned, being that his actual death is seldom depicted while his supposed death is far more popular. I guess arrows are more romantic than sewers. Diocletian not only made sure his death sentence was effectively executed the second time, but by ordering the corpse dumped in the local privy, he also hoped to make sure the body would never be venerated. However, in an apparition, Sebastian is said to have told a Christian widow where she might find his undefiled body, thus it was buried in the catacombs next to those of the apostles. The discourse doesn't mention which catacombs.
St. Sebastian, 1671-72, Giuseppe Giorgetti,
marking the saint's supposed tomb. (The arrows are real.)
St. Sebastian, 1651, Jose di Ribera
St. Sebastian, 1600, El Greco
The story is intriguing, to say the least, which no doubt has something to do with the saint's popularity with artists. Mostly, however, this popularity has more to do with societal restrictions on the depiction of nude (or nearly nude) male figures in art--social morays more than with mayhem and miracles. Almost without exception, St. Sebastian is depicted with only minimal, often quite strategically place, drapery. From that point on, the variations are vast. The number of arrows varies from "urchinal" to but one (sometimes even none). Some depict the event, some the aftermath. Few actually delve very deeply into the religious element or provide much of a story narrative. The figure is nearly always quite muscular, sensually posed, very nearly bloodless, and in varying degrees of pain, literally from "agony to ecstasy." In more recent depictions, any religious element is limited by the title which seems intended to cover all sins.
 St. Sebastian, Gian Paulo Tomasi
St. Sebastian, Yannis Tsarouchis.

As the depictions move into the 20th-century (above) any vestige of personal modesty has declined along with the arrow count. During earlier eras, the story was rife with thin, but socially acceptable "excuses" for male nudity, which have always been far fewer in number than those for female nudity. But, as the centuries have passed, such "excuses" have been recognized for their inanity and thus their utility has declined, leaving only the transparency of the titles. The Images of St. Sebastian has gone from sanctified to sexy, often heavy with homoerotic overtones. Moreover, the poor, unfortunate saint has even undergone an artistic sex-change operation (above left). Of course today, nudity is almost passe. Thus the modern version of St. Sebastian (above, right) is modestly clad in his "tighty-whiteys" with maybe one or two arrows remaining. Perhaps Raphael (below) had the right idea.

Apparently only Raphael could resist the urge to paint the martyr in all
his muscular glory. Though titled St. Sebastian and dating from 1502, it is,
 in fact, difficult here to tell which saint he was paintinig, Irene, or Sebastian.


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