Yesterday was the Feast of Saint Sebastian, the Church's favorite naked altar boy, an object of centuries worth of repressed homoerotic desire.
According to tradition, he was a soldier in the Praetorian Guard under the Emperor Diocletian. Diocletian brought the Third Century Crisis to an end by tying together the tattered fragments of the Roman Empire into an Imperial cult centered around the divine Emperor, himself. That cult tolerated no competition or dissension. The Emperor undertook the most thorough and ruthless of all purges of the illegal Christian religion. He was determined to destroy it root and branch. Sebastian understandably kept his faith quiet until he was found out. The Emperor ordered Sebastian tied to a tree and shot full of arrows until he died. Saint Irene went to claim the body, and discovered that he was still alive. She took him home and nursed him back to health. Miraculously recovered, Sebastian confronted the Emperor and demanded that he stop the suppression of Christians. Emperor Diocletian, astonished at the audacity of someone who was supposed to be dead, ordered Sebastian to be beaten to death on the spot and his body thrown into a sewer.
I'm not quite sure how this particular Roman soldier saint (among many) became an object of thinly veiled homoerotic longing as early as the 15th century throughout Europe. But, he was and still is, though now those desires are no longer suppressed but quite open. He certainly appears as a suffering object of desire in so much of the art about him. He's always young, athletic, and beautiful no matter how many arrows are sticking in him. Sometimes the most institution-bound traditional images of Sebastian are the most androgynous (see the prayer card below). Certainly Sebastian's youth and beauty in art played a role in his enduring popularity down through time. If anything, those qualities enhanced the poignancy of his suffering for many people. For gay male Christians over many centuries, he became a suffering lover of Christ.
The earliest work of art showing Sebastian that I was able to find is this 7th century mosaic in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome.
I'm not quite sure when he became a young man deprived of his clothes and tied to a tree, but it seems to be sometime around the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th centuries.
From the early Renaissance onward Sebastian becomes a frequent subject of art. The homoeroticism is there from the beginning and becomes more so down to the present day. All that same sex desire that might have been projected onto the suffering Christ deflected onto a martyr of similar age who also died a painful death.
The Basilica of Saint Sebastian, Rome
In 1988, I visited the Basilica of St. Sebastian in Rome along with the catacombs underneath it. According to tradition, Saint Sebastian was buried here in 350 CE.
No, these photos are not mine.
Saint Sebastian today takes on a whole new life as a patron saint of gay men and as a plague saint in the time of AIDS. Above is a painting by Tony de Carlo (1956 -2014), one of many he made of the saint as a gay man and as an object of same sex desire, and as a plague saint. Kittredge Cherry made a fine survey of some contemporary gay artists' visions of the saint.
Included is this beautiful prayer by the artist Tony O'Connell:
“St. Sebastian, who strengthens the persecuted Pray for us…
St. Sebastian empowered to protect from plague and AIDS, Pray for us…
St Sebastian, loved and then abandoned by the Roman Emperor, Pray for us.
St. Sebastian, loved and increasingly abandoned by the Roman Church, Pray for us
St. Sebastian, Loved by our people, Pray for us…
Glorious Martyr and undefeated warrior,
we ask that you protect the persecuted from tyrants and enemies.
Use your unstoppable energy
not to punish but only to humble
those who dedicate themselves to oppression and evil.”