Saint Sebastian, a gay icon within art

SAINT SEBASTIAN by Arjan Spannenburg (2021)

Saint Sebastian, a gay icon within art

The patron saint of archers, soldiers, athletes and the icon of the male nude. An inspiration of many famous artists over the centuries with quite a special status. For example, he is seen by various interpretations within art as a symbol of homosexuality. How this came about and how this image arose, Max has found out for you.


His story

To find out how this image of Sebastian came to be, it is important to first understand who he was before he became a saint. Sebastian was born into a Christian family in Narbonne a city in the south of France. According to his Hagiography, the biography of a saint, he was in the Roman army as an imperial bodyguard for Emperor Diocletian. This was problematic because the Romans were persecuting Christians at the time. Saint Sebastian had therefore secretly converted to Christianity to avoid being caught by the Romans. Unfortunately, this was not to help him and he was eventually condemned by Diocletian to be executed by a platoon of archers.


However, all these arrows did not manage to kill Saint Sebastian. He was saved just in the nick of time and after he recovered, confronted Emperor Diocletian in public. As a result, he was clubbed to death for his insolence and thrown into the sewer. At this he became a martyr.


The design

The first execution of Sebastian has become an iconic image that has inspired many painters in different eras. Thus, many different paintings of the execution have been made, but what is most striking is the way he is portrayed. Sebastian is almost always depicted as a handsome young man with a perfect body, which is almost always almost naked as for example in Owe Zerge's image.


Yet there were periods when the portrayal of Sebastian changed. For example, in the Middle Ages, he became the protector against the plague and was designed to be more mature and masculine. Eventually this changed after artists from the Italian Renaissance preferred depictions of masculinity that could be compared to the ideals and beauty of ancient Greece.

Oil painting by OWE ZERGE of "Saint Sebastian" dated 1925. (Photo : Garpenhus Auctions)

Painting by Josse Lieferinxe made around 1497 in which Saint Sebastian is saved after being hit by the firing squad.

Painting of Saint Sebastian from the Renaissance made by Il Sodoma in the year 1525 in which Saint Sebastian looks upwards with longing.

Painting martyrs in the Renaissance was an excuse for many artists to paint handsome boys. Thus, in the case of Sebastian, there is no blood coming from the arrow wounds in many later paintings. Also, the artists often had Sebastian positioned so that while he was dying, he still flexed his muscles and his loincloth just barely exposed everything as in the image below by Eugène Delacroix, called The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.


In the painting by Eugène Delacroix, you can clearly see that there is no blood coming from the many wounds he received from the arrows. You can also clearly see that his loincloth was painted in such a way that he was just short of being naked, but that the painter actively thought about shaping it in such a way that it did not leave much to the imagination. Despite all this, this painting was still hung in the church of St. Michael in France around 1836, without being seen as perverted.  


The association with homosexuality

The reason Saint Sebastian is associated with homosexuality is partly because of the way he is depicted. In many depictions he has an erotic or longing look, this while being pierced by arrows. Also the almost naked being tied to a tree in combination with his satisfied look has something erotic in it, with association to sadomasochism. This is the sexual pleasure experience in which submission, pain and torment are involved.


Also, many homosexuals see Saint Sebastian as an example of homo erotic desire and a typical case of a homosexual boy in the closet. In doing so, some associate the depiction of being tied to a pole as a pillory put there by society. The pole can be seen in two ways, firstly to shame the boy. In the second place the boy is put in a place where he does not want to be.


The arrows can be seen as the hate-filled comments and violence and pain that many gay men receive for being who they are, condemned by society which fires them.


The Roman Catholic message attached to the story and the statue of Sebastian is that you must receive the ''pain'' in this life in order to receive the ''salvation'' of heaven. This is the explanation from the church why Saint Sebastian often looks at heaven so longingly.


The AIDS pandemic

As a patron against the plague, he was an inspiration to many homosexuals during the AIDS pandemic, inspiring many different art forms. For example, Sebastian was used in times of prejudice and homophobia to bring the gay community together and expose the pain of many. A famous example of this was the artwork of David Wojnarowicz and the performance of Ron Athey.


David Wojnarowicz's artwork, in which he seeks to visualize the effects of the AIDS pandemic and the pain that comes with it.


David Wojnarowicz is an artist who eventually died himself from the effects of AIDS on July 22 in 1992 when he was 37 years old. Based on Saint Sebastian, he created a work of art in which he wanted to visualize the consequences and pain resulting from the AIDS pandemic within the gay community.


Another artist is named Ron Athey who tried to reenact parts of Saint Sebastian's ordeal to educate people. Also, according to some, he would like to make a statement that H.I.V. positive people are martyrs in daily life within our society. On youtube you can find a part of his performance (please note, this can be experienced as shocking).


Looking back at the AIDS pandemic, it is easy to see that Saint Sebastian has not only been an object of desire throughout the centuries, but also a great support, bringer together and inspiration for the suffering community during the AIDS pandemic.

The Future of Saint Sebastian

So the inspiration that artists take from Sebastian is not something from just the distant past. For example, on the cover of reFRESH magazine , a magazine that focuses on creativity and self expression, there was a photo in 2007 that showed a new interpretation of Sebastian.


Many other artists also reshape Sebastiaan with a diversity of perspectives. For example, Sain Sebastian inspired Maori/Irish artist and priest Regan O'Callaghan to create a work of art addressing sexuality and eroticism in the faith. According to him, this is often prevented in some religious circles by fear and ignorance. Another artist is New Zealand's Christopher Olwage. This one tries to open the viewer to the possibility that Jesus might have been homosexual.


It is extraordinary that one martyr from Christianity, who died in the year 288 still has so much influence on art. It also inspired Arjan to create a work of art based on the story of Saint Sebastian and give it his interpretation.