He is a familiar figure in Christian iconography – whither in the paintings of Botticelli (left), Titan, Rubens, or El Greco, in sculptures by Bernini and Antonio Giorgetti or in small carvings in wood or ivory by unnamed artists – his bound youthful, athletic body twisted in almost erotic lines showing off its musculature as it is pierced by arrows. His beautiful and sensitive face ringed in ecstasy or impassively accepting his violation; his eyes often cast to heaven seeking the glory of his savour as he enters amongst the elect.
Well that would be Saint Sebastian of course – a young, handsome, virile member of the Praetorian guard turned Christian being martyred at the hands of his fellows by order of that “nasty” Diocletian, the scourge of Christianity. Dying in sweet agony bound to a tree which is often as erotically sculpted as the Saint himself, he has been perhaps the subject of more works of art than any saint in the litany.
If that’s the case then who’s this guy here? Yes I know the young, athletic, atheistic self-same Saint as imagined by Peter Paul Rubens but just roll your mouse over the picture for a closer look.
Hey wait a minute! What happened to the arrow encrusted stud? Who’s the old geezer? Well he is in fact the Sainted Sebastian! Or at least the closest an unknown artist could come to a likeness of the Martyr some 500 years after his death.
Yes according to this mosaic in a chapel in San Pietro in Vincoli and historical records the real Sebastian was a grizzled, combat hardened veteran well passed his youth – and he did not parade around in strategically placed loin clothes. Now that is not to say that all of the facts that revolve around his mythology have been misrepresented. He was indeed a member of the Praetorian Guard who converted to Christianity and he did proselytize on behalf of his religion but that wasn’t the main problem where Diocletian was concerned. The big sticking point was loyalty – unbending, single minded loyalty to Rome and the Emperor was required of every member of the Guard. If you were a follower of this new god then chances were that your loyalties would be divided and held to question. So Sebastian was rounded up in a purging of the army ordered by the co-Emperors Diocletian and Galerius
Poor old Diocletian was to get the full blame for all this in later Christian histories but looking at his reign as Emperor tells a different story. He was part of a Tetrarchy that had found Rome in a perilous state financially and physically and used hard measures to bring things back into line (god that sounds very familiar doesn’t it?). One questions how if he spent all his time dealing with pesky Christian martyrs he found time to consolidate the Empire.
When it was found that no auguries could be read predicting the future of the new Tetrarchy, the priests demanded that all institutes of the Empire be purified and everyone was required to perform the traditional sacrifices. When Sebastian, amongst other Christians, refused he was arrested and handed over to the Macedonian Guard to be used for archery practice. According to the Legenda sanctorum he was shot full of arrows until he resembled a hedgehog???
In the church built over the catacombs where he is reputedly buried, the “tomb” of the saint shows that lithe youth laying much pierced and obviously quite dead – however it didn’t quite play out that way. He was rescued from the practice field by Saint Irene who tended to his wounds and nursed him back to health. However ever the old campaigner and never one to be kept down by something as a piffling as a fleeting resemblance to a porcupine, he was back front and centre haranguing the Emperor. At this point Diocletian had his hands full with comprehensive tax reform and didn’t need someone yelling at him from the sidelines. So he ordered Sebastian clubbed to death and the body thrown into the sewer. Not the most romantic of ends and hardly a fitting subject for a large painting to adorn a chapel meant to impress everyone with your family importance.
So why the gym-buffed stud muffin makeover? Much of it had to do with the Plague which struck most of Europe in the mid-1300s. Fuelled by fear as they watched their family and friends die swiftly but painfully around them the Romans looked to Saint Sebastian – he was their third most important saint – who had survived the archers’ arrows to intercede on their behalf. The mosaic from San Pietro was carried in procession around the city with other holy icons. Candles were lit, prayers were addressed and promises made – and the plague lifted. The blessed Sebastian suddenly became one of the hottest saints around and the object of universal veneration.
But would you really want to kneel and address your pleas to a grizzled old codger covered in sewer sludge? Well neither did the faithful of the period – so by degrees Sebastian was changed. The beard and white hair, wrinkles and robes were morphed into the athletic perfection of an unclothed model. And that undignified method of execution glossed over and the far more sensational and artistic- and is it possible erotic? – death by many piercings became the agent of his martyrdom.
The church, painters, sculptors, writers, poets and artists of all kinds had found themselves the perfect cover boy!
23 novembre – San Clemente Romanus