…but the first, and last, (supposedly) intellectual post of the year.
Lately, I’ve read all sorts of things for an essay which I’ve had to write, and I kept coming across something. I read about homoeroticism in art. About name meanings (and randomly read up on my little brother’s). About Oscar Wilde. About peacocks. And I kept coming across this guy, finding out more and more about him – so here’s a blog post, less about Saint Sebastian, more about his artistic significance.
St Sebastian’s existence is a bit of a mess in the mind of your average Christian. It’s not even certain that he existed; if he did, it was sometime in the third century AD. He is commonly depicted as tied to a tree/post/column/whatever, with arrows in his body, as in the painting below, Pietro Perugino, c. 1490-1500
Which is why most people think he died that way; but, according to the legend, he was actually saved and nursed by a woman. He then rebelled against the Diocletian, Rome’s emperor which was then hunting down Christians, only to be seized and beaten to death with clubs.
How he ended up what he is today – the patron saint of soldiers, plagues, arrows, and (much more interestingly) homosexuals – isn’t known (he’s quite a mystery, this lad, isn’t he?), but it is not very hard to guess. Guido Reni did a series of seven portraits of him, and this is his most famous (1616)
A young boy, a pretty body which twists at the waist in an almost feminine way, the vulnerability and, who knows, perhaps all that bare skin 😛 Not once, his martyrdom has been deemed feminine in its peculiar passivity. And, ever since, his image has seeped into collective cultural symbolism and has obsessed a good number of men over the centuries.
Giovanni Bazzi, San Sebastian, 1525
The first one I heard of is Oscar Wilde; I need not talk about his sexuality, I hope. After being released from prison, in his typical play-on-identity manner, he took the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth. He visited the saint’s tomb in Rome and saw Guido’s painting, describing the experience as “the vision of Guido’s Saint Sebastian came before my eyes as I saw him at Genoa, a lovely brown boy, with crisp, clustering hair and red lips, raising his eyes with divine, impassioned gaze towards the Eternal Beauty of the opening Heavens”.
T. S. Eliot has a poem entitled The love song of Saint Sebastian, which you can find yourself if you know how to use Google. Same goes for Rainer Maria Rilke, whose poem is simple, but strikingly beautiful, in my opinion. (but I’m biased and everything).
Salvador Dali, during his tumultuous (and allegedly homoerotic) friendship with Federico Garcia Lorca, painted something called Saint Sebastien perce de Fleches, which looks more or less like this:
Thomas Mann’s famous work Death in Venice polishes the different meanings of the controversial figure, turning him into a symbol of the Apollinic beauty, of a heroic submissiveness to fate. When he received his Nobel prize, Mann said “Grace in suffering – that is the heroism symbolised by St Sebastian (…) The image may be bold, but I am tempted to claim this heroism for the German mind and German art.”
An interesting (and rather famous case) is that of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima who, in the autobiographical Confessions of a Mask, has his character masturbating and ejaculating for the first time over a reproduction of Reni’s St Sebastian.
Mishima killed himself in 1970, but not before posing for a rather unsettling photograph as the saint himself (see above). Details about his strange, ritualic death can be provided by google.
Contemporary examples are numerous and not very difficult to find. There’s a St Sebastian figure in the video for the famous REM song, Losing my religion, 1991 (see below), The Simpsons, various AIDS campaigns, novels, paintings, grafittis etc. There’s even a funky tumblr about him.
Now for a smart ending? Brain doesn’t help, so I’ll do what I usually do in these cases, and quote someone. Here’s Rilke’s poem
-Rainer Maria Rilke
He stands like someone lying down,
propped up by his own huge will.
Off somewhere else, like mothers when they nurse,
and bound in himself like a wreath.
And the arrows arrive: now, and now,
as if they sprang out of his thighs,
iron and trembling at the ends. And still
he smiles darkly, he’s not hurt.
Just once a sadness suddenly looms large,
and his eyes grow naked with pain
until they deny something, not worth the trouble,
filling with scorn as they come to relinquish
those who would kill a beautiful thing.
Oh, and Merry Christmas to everyone. (i.e. the two or three people reading this blog)
I wanted to post these two, as I find the first one (Nicolas Regnier, c. 1620) very similar to Wilde’s description, while the second one is a Mapplethorpe selfportrait and a) i really like Mapplethorpe b) it fascinates me how many of them identify with St Sebastian; yet another example.