To continue our look at art and history today, I wanted to discuss St. Sebastian. Can a Christian saint be a gay icon? Apparently he can. Sebastian was a Christian martyr who died during the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 288. According to legend, he was born in Gaul (present-day France) and went to Rome to serve in the army. When officials learned that he was a Christian seeking converts, they ordered his execution by archers. Left for dead, he was nursed back to health by a Christian widow. He presented himself before the emperor, who condemned him to death by beating. His body was thrown into a sewer but was afterward found and buried. In Renaissance art he was often depicted as a handsome youth pierced by arrows.
In his novella Death in Venice, Thomas Mann hails the "Sebastian-Figure" as the supreme emblem of Apollonian beauty, that is, the artistry of differentiated forms, beauty as measured by discipline, proportion, and luminous distinctions. This allusion to Saint Sebastian's suffering, associated with the writerly professionalism of the novella's protagonist, Gustav Aschenbach, provides a model for the "heroism born of weakness", which characterizes poise amidst agonizing torment and plain acceptance of one's fate as, beyond mere patience and passivity, a stylized achievement and artistic triumph.
In 1976, the British director Derek Jarman made a film, Sebastiane, which caused controversy in its treatment of the martyr as a homosexual icon. However, as several critics have noted, this has been a subtext of the imagery since the Renaissance.
To show some of the modern interpretations of St. Sebastian, I decided to add both parts of the short film directed by Jose Ramon Samper Artegalia Bernad. Like Jarman’s film, which was done in Latin, this shows St. Sebastian as gay icon. This film is in Spanish, but it is still quite beautiful, even if you don’t speak Spanish.
Renaissance artists had access to history that we currently do not. There was obviously some reason why they chose to depict him as a beautiful young man. Since Sebastian was a Gaul, it could have been influenced by the beauty of The Dying Gaul, one of my all time favorite statues. The warrior is depicted as a beautiful man, but there is obviously love and lust for his beauty that the sculptor saw. It is also likely that Renaissance artists may have known some historical gossip about Sebastian, or the loving relationships that existed between the early brothers and sisters in Christ. Who knows why they depicted him as a beautiful young man, but they have left behind a question for history and the beauty of man.