LGBT artwork marks Saint Sebastian Feast day

20 January 2017 by Lynn

St SebastianMarking the Feast of Saint Sebastian today, Lynn Wray serves up a slice of LGBT art history, from her work as researcher in our Pride and Prejudice research project.

“On the 20th January 287 AD, Saint Sebastian was killed by the Roman emperor Diocletian for his Christian beliefs. On this day, every year, people come together to celebrate the feast day of the Christian martyr. San Sebastian in Spain, is transformed with the sound of drums and barrels, as parades march through the city and flags are hoisted. To celebrate, today we offer our own small ‘Pride and Prejudice’ salute to the Saint.

Our research project Pride and Prejudice aims to make visible the LGBT history and culture that exists within the fine art and social history collections of National Museums Liverpool. We have highlighted the important contribution of LGBT people in a music, art and design, social activism and politics. However, we’ve also looked at historic objects with themes and symbolism that have more recently developed significance for LGBT people. This includes re-examining the art within our collections that depicts Saint Sebastian, in relation to his contemporary status as a ‘gay icon’.

Sebastian was a favourite subject of medieval and Renaissance artists, who welcomed the challenge to paint the Saint’s contorted body. We have seven paintings and drawings of him from the 15th,16th and 17th centuries. Works in our collection by Bartolomeo di Giovanni, Gaspare Diziani and Maerten De Vos, like most images from this period, show the Saint as a handsome, semi-naked, youth and focus on the moment of his execution. They depict him tied to a tree or post, his bare torso pierced with arrows, often seemingly deriving a spiritual pleasure from his pain.

It is thought that the abundance of such eroticised portrayals of the martyr’s naked, muscular, arrow-pierced flesh, inspired the cult following Saint Sebastian attracted within late nineteenth century gay communities. The saint’s youthful good looks made him a symbol of homoerotic desire and male beauty. Others were drawn to the way depictions of the saint’s portrayed him as a ‘tortured soul’. They connected the shame, rejection and loneliness they experienced within society to the martyr’s experiences of persecution. Oscar Wilde even took on Sebastian’s name for a time after his release from prison.

Sir Joshua Reynolds

An Angel sheathing a sword with St Roch and St. Sebastian by Sir Joshua Reynolds

It is these visions of Saint Sebastian, which have endured throughout the 20th and 21st Century. The artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman’s 1976 film of the Saint’s life, ‘Sebastiane’, for example, explicitly treated of the martyr as a gay icon. More recently, Sebastian featured on the front cover of gay magazine ‘reFRESH’.

Other works in our collection, such as the drawing by Sir Joshua Reynolds (copied from one by Guercino produced in 1632-34) focus instead on Saint Sebastian as a protector against the plague and disease. The original drawing is believed to have been a preparatory sketch for an altarpiece for the church at Nonantola, near Cento. It was probably commissioned in thanks for the town’s reprieve from the plague in 1630. Since the onset of the AIDS epidemic, some LGBT people have also found solace or relevance in this image of Saint Sebastian as a protector against disease. Contemporary artists, such as David Wojnarowicz and Keith Haring, for example, who both eventually died of the disease, drew on Sebastian’s image in their later work.”

Find out more about our Pride and Prejudice research project.

  1. John Scott says:

    St Sebastian did not die of being tied up and and shot with arrows, as suggested here. After he had been shot he was taken by St Irene, who cared for him and restored him to health. Subsequently he was re-arrested and executed, and his body was thrown into a drain; which is not, of course, quite so tantalising a thing to paint.

    • Lynn says:

      Thank you for your comment and for taking the time to read the blog. Yes, absolutely, it is important an point that it should be made clearer that he did not die from the arrow shots but was later beaten to death and thrown in the sewer. I do mention this briefly in the individual object texts, for example in this artwork page, and in more to follow. However, the artists in question did intend to portray this as his moment of execution, whether accurate or not. I think this fact makes the connection between the focus on the arrows wounds in visual art and his contemporary status as a homoerotic icon more compelling and intriguing. It is interesting to note how visual representations can alter our understanding of history.

  2. James Lodwick says:

    This is fascinating; I want to know, and see, more. I was aware of Saint Sebastian’s status as a gay icon but not familiar with the extent of his “cult” and the extensive attention to his image, legend and history in art and devotion. Many, many thanks to those who mounted this terrific exhibition!

  3. Kittredge Cherry says:

    I am delighted to discover your LGBT art history project in general and your piece on Sebastian in particular. I also blogged about LGBT artwork featuring Sebastian for his feast day, although my focus is more on contemporary art (including a Sebastian project by Liverpool artist Tony O’Connell).

    I blog regularly about LGBT Christian art at the Jesus in Love Blog, and you can find my article about Sebastian at this link. I just added a link to your piece at the end:

    I strongly support your LGBT art history project, so I will reach out to you in a private email as well.

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