John, Parish Assistant reflects on how we depict the saints (iconography) can change with circumstance and culture
St Sebastian (feast day January 20th) has become something of a gay icon, as saints go. Partly, perhaps, because it’s an opportunity to depict a curly-haired semi-nude youth in light bondage. It has to be said this isn’t how Sebastian died, or how he was originally depicted. Sebastian miraculously survived being shot with arrows and was healed by Irene of Rome. He continued to denounce the emperor Diocletian, who had him clubbed to death in the year 288.
The tendency to depict Sebastian as a handsome youth pierced with arrows began in the 14th Century when Europe was being ravaged by the plague of the Black Death.
See how the two ‘Sebastians’ in the modern version above look entirely unperturbed by the arrows protruding from their torsos?
There is a long tradition of Sebastian looking unaffected by his plight: corruption fails to touch him and that made him proof against plague. Sebastian occupied an important place in medieval religion as a protector against plague. He was seen as a saint whose prayers would work.
And what might today seem to be so much camp nonsense had a somewhat different edge through the 1980-90s as the AIDS crisis developed and some of Sebastian’s plague saint qualities were revived in the context of that fresh pandemic (the Pierre et Gilles ‘St Sebastian’ [above left] dates from 1987).
Sebastian’s remains have lain at the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli since his death, and alongside there is a seventh-century mosaic of Sebastian (reproduced here)
In this early depiction of Sebastian we see a very different person. Here he is not the smooth-chested young man but a bearded middle-aged man.
Circumstances, and cultures affect our images of the saints. Perhaps in the future there will be a campaign to rediscover St Sebastian in another way.