Monday, January 21, 2019

Saint Sebastian

Nicolas Regnier, 17th century

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.

15th century German altarpiece from Cologne

Josse Lieferinxe, Altarpiece of Saint Sebastian, 15th century

Josse Lieferinxe, Saint Irene Tending St. Sebastian, from the St. Sebastian Altarpiece

Hans Memling, 15th century

Josse Lieferinxe 15th century.  St. Sebastian was a plague saint.  Since at least the Black Death, people always prayed to Sebastian in times of plague.  They probably prayed to him because the painful skin lesions that frequently accompanied the disease felt like wounds from arrows.

Pollaiuolo, 15th century

Piero della Francesco, from the Misericordia Altarpiece, with St. John the Baptist, 15th century

Andrea Mantegna, 15th century

Andrea Mantegna, 15th century

Antonello da Messina, 15th century; a personal favorite of mine.

Giovanni Bellini, from the San Giobbe Altarpiece, 15th century; St. Sebastian was very popular in plague vulnerable Venice.

Titian, 16th century; Saint Mark in shadow with Saints Cosmas and Damian, Roch, and Sebastian, all plague saints.  The Venetian Senate commissioned the picture as an ex voto for deliverance from an outbreak of plague in 1510.  The artist Giorgione, a friend and mentor to Titian, died in this plague.

Titian, 16th century

Bronzino, 16th century; perhaps a young Florentine nobleman portrayed as the saint.

El Greco, 16th century

Annibale Carracci, 17th century

Ludovico Carracci (Annibale's cousin) 17th century; one of the few depictions of Sebastian dumped in the sewer.

Orazio Gentilleschi (Artemisia's father), 17th century

George De La Tour, 17th century

Hendrik Terbrugghen, 17th century

Jusepe de Ribera, 17th century

Guido Reni, 17th century; a favorite painting of Oscar Wilde

Rubens, 17th century

Mattia Preti, 17th century

Nicolas Regnier, 17th century

Francois Xavier Fabre, 19th century

Paul Delaroche, 19th century

Gustave Moreau, 19th century

Yukio Mishima, 20th century

Derek Jarman, 20th century

Pierre et Gilles, 20th century

Prayer card, 20th century

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.

This is the reliquary shrine of Saint Sebastian in the church.  What remains of him rests under a swooning homoerotic 17th century sculpture by Antonio Giorgetti.

The catacombs under the church.

Monday, December 31, 2018


I wish all of my readers a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

2018 was a trying year for me and much more of an ordeal for legions of people around the world.
I expect 2019 will be another difficult year.

Here is a poem posted by my friend Jason Chappell today;

Imagine the Angels of Bread 

This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck
or levitating hands in praise
of steam in the shower;
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination;
this is the year that police revolvers,
stove-hot, blister the fingers
of raging cops,
and nightsticks splinter
in their palms;
this is the year that darkskinned men
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners.

This is the year that those
who swim the border’s undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side?
this is the year that the hands
pulling tomatoes from the vine
uproot the deed to the earth that sprouts the vine,
 the hands canning tomatoes
are named in the will
that owns the bedlam of the cannery?
this is the year that the eyes
stinging from the poison that purifies toilets
awaken at last to the sight
of a rooster-loud hillside,
pilgrimage of immigrant birth?
this is the year that cockroaches
become extinct, that no doctor
finds a roach embedded
in the ear of an infant?
this is the year that the food stamps
of adolescent mothers
are auctioned like gold doubloons,
and no coin is given to buy machetes
for the next bouquet of severed heads
in coffee plantation country.

If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year?
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorium,
then this is the year?
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback
are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.

So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.

-Martin Espada, 1996

Monday, December 24, 2018

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Merry Christmas!

Christmas in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn

"From this high midtown hall, undecked with boughs, unfortified with mistletoe, we send forth our tinselled greetings as of old, to friends, to readers, to strangers of many conditions in many places. Merry Christmas to uncertified accountants, to tellers who have made a mistake in addition, to girls who have made a mistake in judgment, to grounded airline passengers, and to all those who can't eat clams! We greet with particular warmth people who wake and smell smoke. To captains of river boats on snowy mornings we send an answering toot at this holiday time. Merry Christmas to intellectuals and other despised minorities! Merry Christmas to the musicians of Muzak and men whose shoes don't fit! Greetings of the season to unemployed actors and the blacklisted everywhere who suffer for sins uncommitted; a holly thorn in the thumb of compilers of lists! Greetings to wives who can't find their glasses and to poets who can't find their rhymes! Merry Christmas to the unloved, the misunderstood, the overweight. Joy to the authors of books whose titles begin with the word "How" (as though they knew!). Greetings to people with a ringing in their ears; greetings to growers of gourds, to shearers of sheep, and to makers of change in the lonely underground booths! Merry Christmas to old men asleep in libraries! Merry Christmas to people who can't stay in the same room with a cat! We greet, too, the boarders in boarding houses on 25 December, the duennas in Central Park in fair weather and foul, and young lovers who got nothing in the mail. Merry Christmas to people who plant trees in city streets; merry Christmas to people who save prairie chickens from extinction! Greetings of a purely mechanical sort to machines that think--plus a sprig of artificial holly. Joyous Yule to Cadillac owners whose conduct is unworthy of their car! Merry Christmas to the defeated, the forgotten, the inept; joy to all dandiprats and bunglers! We send, most particularly and most hopefully, our greetings and our prayers to soldiers and guardsmen on land and sea and in the air--the young men doing the hardest things at the hardest time of life. To all such, Merry Christmas, blessings, and good luck! We greet the Secretaries-designate, the President-elect; Merry Christmas to our new leaders, peace on earth, good will, and good management! Merry Christmas to couples unhappy in doorways! Merry Christmas to all who think they are in love but aren't sure! Greetings to people waiting for trains that will take them in the wrong direction, to people doing up a bundle and the string is too short, to children with sleds and no snow! We greet ministers who can't think of a moral, gagmen who can't think of a joke. Greetings, too, to the inhabitants of other planets; see you soon! And last, we greet all skaters on small natural ponds at the edge of woods toward the end of afternoon. Merry Christmas, skaters! Ring, steel! Grow red, sky! Die down, wind! Merry Christmas to all and to all a good morrow!"

--E.B. White, 12/20/52

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Yet Another Apologia

The conventional view these days sees the world as an arena of struggle for power, that life is about domination and submission, that language is a weapon, and all other aspects of life are weaponized. This concept appears to be shared across the spectrum.

The left accepts this view of the world with a prosecutorial zeal. The world is divided between aggressors and victims; predation and defense against it is the law of life. The world is a battleground strewn with innocent casualties. Wrongs must be righted and justice done; and indeed they must. By what authority we are obliged to do so remains obscure. Religion marginalized itself by its rejection of modernity and the hypocrisy of its practices. Jacques Derrida among others demolished the philosophical foundations of secular liberal humanitarianism quite thoroughly. So, what is left other than personal instinctive sympathy? Ta-nehisi Coates writing from very painful personal experience comments on this prevailing order of the world with anguished despair. He suggests that we are doomed to live in a world shaped by struggles for power that are never fair and always rigged whether we like it or not.

The right positively embraces this concept of the world as an endless battle for power with a determination to win. They want to dominate, and to force all the rest of the world to submit. Derrida is among Steve Bannon’s favorite philosophers precisely because he demolished the foundations of liberalism; a liberalism that Derrida himself continued to practice despite his own philosophical claims. Bannon and his fellow ethno-nationalists/racists proclaim the most radical of all modern politics. They reject all the Enlightenment ideas that form the foundation of the modern constitutional state; the law as social contract, the supremacy of law, human dignity, equality, democracy, education, internationalism in trade and treaties. What matters to them is national/racial identity and loyalty above all else. The only true peace is through victory and domination. Bannon professes to be a devout Catholic. I wonder if what appeals to him is Catholic Christianity; or if like another of his favorite thinkers Charles Maurras, he’s more interested in the Catholic Church’s authoritarianism.

I am the worst kind of religious believer; one who is loyal not because I am convinced that any of this obscure mishegoss is in any way literally true, but because I wish to. I want it to be true. That pleases neither the orthodox nor the anticlerical. But that is the best that I can do. What keeps me in the Christian faith is its radicalism. It is not a radical worship of identity and power, but a radical hopefulness that takes that whole idea of life as “who may” versus “who must” and throws it out the window. Christianity at its worst is an imperial religion; another identity, another nation – Christendom -- determined to dominate all others. Christ challenged all concepts of identity, power, and domination by which we always find our way through the world. No more nationalism. No more compulsion. Instead, a universal human family, each member a unique unrepeatable image of God. What could be a more radical rejection of the whole formula of power versus powerlessness than God arriving on earth not in some glorious theophany making everything right with the sweep of his irresistibly powerful hand, but as a helpless infant; and more, as a bastard child born to poor migrants forced to travel by some edict from a distant imperial capital. God wants to win the one thing from us that he cannot command, our love.

Luca della Robbia, one of the "Bambini" from the facade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence from the 15th century.  The "'Spedale" was an orphanage and the world's first hospital exclusively for the care of children.  The institution still exists, though no longer in this building.  The original building designed by Filippo Brunelleschi now houses a museum and offices of UNICEF, The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Charles Bewick

During this period of national mourning, I remember Charles Bewick. He was a native of England, from Kingswood in Surrey. He was from an affluent background, what he called "the gin and jaguars set." He knew personally a lot of musicians and dancers including Michael Tilson Thomas, Lynn Fonteyn, and Rudolf Nureyev. He told remarkable stories about some very wild parties he attended with all those folks both famous and not so famous.  I remember one story he told about a party where 6 people shared a bed and passed champagne bottles across the bed.  The bottles each ended up empty by the time they got to the other side.  All six were very drunk, but had presence of mind to suddenly realize that they had to go to a wedding at St. Martin in the Fields by a certain hour.  Among the revelers in the bed were the bride and groom.  They were all so drunk they could barely stand, and yet they made it to their wedding on time.  At the time, Charles was a young City stock broker who made and fortune and lost a fortune, as he described it.

Very unexpectedly, Charles became an Anglican priest.  He was very close to his father, but his father tried to talk him out of it.   Charles persisted and he did his first tour of duty as a priest among auto-manufacturing factory workers living among them and taking a job at the plant. While serving as a priest on the staff of Southwark Cathedral in London, Michael Marshall the Bishop of Woolwich hired Charles to be a chaplain.  In 1983, Charles accompanied the bishop to Saint Louis, MO in the USA to found The Anglican Institute at the Church of St. Michael and St. George. While there, Charles became seriously ill and was diagnosed with AIDS. Bishop Marshall immediately fired him and tried to have him defrocked (only the intervention of William Jones the local Episcopal bishop in St. Louis prevented Bishop Marshall from defrocking Charles) Charles Bewick found himself seriously ill, unemployed, and marooned in the USA. Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Louis hired him as an assisting priest where he lived out the rest of his days.
Charles was a founder and served on the board of directors of Doorways, an interfaith organization that provided housing for AIDS sufferers facing eviction in St. Louis. Most of them were people of color. Charles faced down very hostile racist landlords in order to find housing for AIDS victims at the height of the panic and hysteria over the disease.   He found himself often a target of verbal abuse and threats of violence, but calmly persisted in his work.  Landlords and hostile neighbors described his clients with the N word and the F word, and frequently addressed Charles as the "N word loving F word" and ended their rants with something like "... and you call yourself a priest!" Charles would usually let them rant on and on, and when they were finished or exhausted, he would calmly continue with "this is what we are looking for and this is what we are willing to pay, do you have anything available?"   Sometimes they would storm out of the room, but greed plus the expense of maintaining vacant units would usually overcome their bigotry.

Charles died of AIDS in 1989 at age 42. On his deathbed, he forgave a very penitent Bishop Marshall, and asked him to preside at his funeral, which he did.

I was very privileged to know Charles in the last years of his life. He now rests in peace with the saints in light.

A panel from the National AIDS Memorial quilt commemorating Charles and two other AIDS victims from Trinity Episcopal Church in Saint Louis.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

George HW Bush

Flowers by Henri Fantin-Latour

Former President George Herbert Walker Bush died yesterday at the age of 94.

I remember today a whole lot of people who didn't live to be 94.  Over 507,000 people died of AIDS in the USA between 1987 and 2015; over half a million people, more than the entire population of Kansas City, MO.
Most of those people never lived to see 50.  A lot didn't live to see 30.