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Riddled with arrows and left to die, St Sebastian (San Sebastiano), one of the most popular saints in sacred art, was a child of Milan. According to St Ambrose, he was a native of the city, while other sources, which place his birth in Narbonne, France, agree that he spent his adolescent years in Milan before moving to Rome, where he was martyred during the Diocletian persecutions.

Among his attributes, St Sebastian (d. ca. 288) is a protector saint against the plague, a primary reason for his medieval popularity.

His presence has been felt in Lombardy, particularly in the cities of Pavia and Milan. According to Paul the Deacon (d. 799), the plague of 680 stopped only after an arm relic of the saint was moved from Rome and set up in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Pavia. The story is repeated in the thirteenth-century Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea), which names Sebastian as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.

St Sebastian played a special role in Milan’s struggle to combat the plague of 1576-77.

After the Spanish governor fled Milan upon the outbreak of the plague, Archbishop San Carlo Borromeo (1538-1584), whose legacy has been largely shaped by the administrative and pastoral care that he gave during the crisis, assumed responsibility for the city’s governance. He also led the church’s cultic response to the calamity, invoking the assistance of St Sebastian. On October 15, 1576, Borromeo officially pronounced a public vow which included the reconstruction of the city’s ancient church of San Sebastiano. The project was entrusted to Carlo’s favorite architect, Pellegrino Tibaldi, and the foundation stone to the new building was laid on September 6, 1577. On January 20, 1578, on the feast of St Sebastian, the plague was officially declared to be over.

Pellegrino Tibaldi worked on the church until 1587. Construction continued under Pietro Antonio Barca and Fabio Mangone. The round Mannerist building, whose design was likely influenced by Rome’s Pantheon and which transgressed the architectural norms of the Counter Reformation, was finally finished in the seventeenth century. Reflecting its ambiguity as both a church and a civic structure, the building is known as La Chiesa di San Sebastiano as well as Il Tempio Civico di San Sebastiano.

DSC03362San_Sebastiano_MilanSan Sebastian_Milan2

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Milan is further connected with St Sebastian for providing the earlier source of the saint’s martyrdom, which comes from the pen of St Ambrose:

‘Take the example of the martyr Sebastian, whose birthday in glory we celebrate today. He was a native of Milan. At a time when persecution either had ceased or had not yet begun or was of a milder kind, he realized that there was only one slight, if any, opportunity for suffering. He set out for Rome, where bitter persecutions were raging because of the fervor of the Christians. There he endured suffering; there he gained his crown. He went to the city as a stranger and there established a home of undying glory. If there had been only one persecutor, he would not have gained a martyr’s crown’ (St Ambrose, Sermon 22: Exposition of Psalm 118).

Although Ambrose’s account is short on details, recorded references to arrows and the plague would follow. According to a fifth-century description of his passion, the St Sebastian was active in the Roman army making converts to the Christian faith when his activities came to the attention of the Rome emperor Diocletian. When Sebastian remained obstinate in his Christian faith, the emperor ordered him to be tied to a tree and shot to death. However, after the archers riddled him with arrows and left him for died, a certain Irene of Rome, who came to attend to his body, found him still alive and carried him to her home where she nursed his wounds. Shortly afterwards, St Sebastian confronted Diocletian in person, who had him arrested and beaten to death with clubs. He is sometimes referred to as the twice-martyred saint.

After his death, St Sebastian visited a pious woman named Lucina, informing her of the location of his body and instructing her to bury him in the catacombs on the Appian Way near where the bodies of St Peter and St Paul were buried at the time. In 376, Pope Damasus I built the Basilica of the Apostles on the site, which was later rededicated to St Sebastian, who remains the third patron saint of Rome after Peter and Paul. The current church, known as San Sebastiano fuori le mura (Saint Sebastian outside the walls) or San Sebastiano ad Catacumbas (Saint Sebastian at the Catacombs), is a seventeenth-century structure. It was one of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome until 2000 when Pope John II (d. 2005) replaced it with the Santuario della Madonna del Divino Amore.

In 826, the saint’s relics were translated to the Abbey of St Medard in Soissons, France, a gift from Pope Eugene II (d. 827) to Abbot Hilduin (d. 830), establishing Soissons as a new center for the cult of St Sebastian.  

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St Sebastian has occupied an important place in the imagination of artists from the early middle ages to modern times.

Perhaps the earliest artistic representation of St Sebastian is a sixth century mosaic in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy (left). One of some twenty-six depicted martyrs, the figures are all identical in expression and lack any distinctive features. A mosaic in Rome’s Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, probably made in 682 shortly after the plague of 680, shows a grown, bearded man in court dress but lacks any trace of arrows.

The saint’s common depiction as a handsome young soldier pierced but not mortally wounded by arrows only first appears around the year 1000 and became especially popular with Renaissance painters, including Rubens (1577-1640), Mantegna (c. 1431-1506) and Botticelli (c. 1445-1510), in response to the Black Death.

St Sebastian has continued to capture the imagination of modern artists. In 1914, Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele painted a self-portrait as Saint Sebastian (left), while Salvador Dali created numerous paintings of the saint (below). More recently, Damien Hirst (2007) produced Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain, which depicts a young bull shot with arrows in a tank of formaldehyde. The work has been purchased by George Michael. (Also see Hirst’s sculpture of St Bartholomew which appears in a previous post). 

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While there is no indication of St Sebastian’s sexuality in the hagiographical sources, there has been a subtext of homosexuality in the representation of the saint since the Renaissance, and he is unofficially the patron saint of the Catholic gay community.  The British film, Sebastiane (1976), directed by Derek Jarman, controversially treated the character of St Sebastian as a homosexual icon. It also has the distinction of being the first film ever recorded entirely in Latin.

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REM’s video, Losing My Religionwhich won video of the year at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, includes imagery of St Sebastian, as does the image of Tom Cruise below.

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