Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Sebastian: The Queer[ed] Saint

Y’know I have seen the image of St. Sebastian being martyred hundreds of times but I never thought about it like this

The earliest gay icon was Saint Sebastian. The combination of his strong, shirtless physique, the symbolism of the arrows penetrating his body, and the look on his face of rapturous pain have intrigued artists both gay and straight for centuries; and began the first explicitly gay cult in the 19th century.

From the Independent

The only saint who really cuts it as a cover-boy is St Sebastian, that curly-haired Roman youth shot with arrows on the orders of the emperor Diocletian. Sebastian's appeal to gay men seems obvious. He was young, male, apparently unmarried and martyred by the establishment.
What's going on? Well, Sebastian is living proof of the fact that if saints didn't exist, we would have to invent them. Thanks to the arrows, he's the one martyr in art everyone can spot. (Iconography is so unfair. Who now recognises St Stephen's stones or St Lawrence's griddle?) A twinky torso also helps.
(Ed. Note: okay maybe this picture is really gay)
Yet, according to his hagiographer, Ambrose of Milan, Sebastian was a red-blooded captain in the Praetorian Guard, a centurion of middling years: he is the patron saint of soldiers and athletes, not hairdressers. Far from riling Diocletian by proselytising for same-sex love, he was killed for converting Romans to Christianity. And we all know where that led.

But there is worse. Not only was St Sebastian middle-aged and butch, he wasn't killed with arrows. Punctured, yes, but not killed. The perforated martyr was rescued from the stake and nursed back to health by St Irene of Rome – a woman, boys – before unwisely haranguing Diocletian for his paganism as he passed by on a litter. Unmoved by his tenacity, the emperor had Sebastian clubbed to death; his body was then dumped in Rome's sewers.

Piero della Francesca's Misericordia polyptych, painted two centuries earlier, already shows Sebastian as young, willowy and lightly rouged. But why?

In 1348, Europe had been ravaged by the Black Death: up to half of the entire population of the continent died in a torment of bloody flux. In their terror, Romans prayed to Sebastian – he'd survived those arrows, after all – and the epidemic lifted. Willy-nilly, he became the hottest plague saint in Christ-endom. It is incumbent upon plague saints to look as though they haven't got one foot in the grave (or, come to that, in the sewer). So by the end of the 14th century, the middle-aged Sebastian had had a makeover, his beard, wrinkles and actual cause of death neatly airbrushed from the picture.

But even if all that is true what are the Saints really for besides to give us comfort and peace and so...

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.

From the LGBTQ encyclopedia
[Sebastian] was a featured subject of a host of Renaissance and baroque artists (including Tintoretto, Mantegna, Titian, Guido Reni, Giorgione, Botticelli, and "Il Sodoma") whose works inspired an explicitly homosexual cult of Saint Sebastian in the nineteenth century.

Sebastian's broad and long-standing presence in queer artistic production suggests that there is more to his appeal than the good looks with which he is most often rendered. Rather, several coexisting elements of his narrative make him an enduring trope of modern gay fascination.

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."

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.

Like many personages who are continually reiterated, Sebastian has essentially grown up alongside modern notions of sexuality and the formation of gay consciousness, becoming an accessible touchstone of both gay desire and gay experience in the process.

As Richard A. Kaye aptly notes, "contemporary gay men have seen in Sebastian at once a stunning advertisement for homosexual desire (indeed, a homoerotic ideal), and a prototypical portrait of tortured closet case."

The melancholy tone of Sebastian imagery--to say nothing of Sebastian's accompanying torment--is a ready parallel to the feelings of shame, rejection, inverted desire, and loneliness endured by queer people in a homophobic society.

The coding of these maladies is perhaps all the more effective because it is not easily separable from--indeed, it is rendered by the same means as--Sebastian's come-hither beauty and sexual availability.

In all, Sebastian's narrative complexity, vernacular resonance, and theological origins speak volumes of the queer representational strategies through which he is deployed.

And gay or straight, butch or twink, thrown into the colaca or not Sebastian is what we will make of him.
BTW, if you’re interested, or not here are some of Guido Reni’s St.Sebastians

Inspired by Arrows of desire: How did St Sebastian become an enduring, homo-erotic icon? from The Independent

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