(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)
Martyrdom — dying for the sake of one’s religious beliefs — has been one of the defining aspects of Christian self-understanding since at least about 100 CE, when the Book of Revelation was composed. Only a few systematic persecutions of Christians can be even minimally documented, but the idea that Christians suffer and even die for their faith — at the hands of the Jewish establishment, or the Roman authorities, or, today, secular humanists — is absolutely central to Christian identity for many Christians.
One of these ancient periods of persecution for which there is some historical evidence is in the late third and early fourth centuries, around the time of the Emperor Diocletian. On this day in 287, according to tradition, Diocletian martyred Saint Sebastian, at the time an officer in the Praetorian Guard.
The story goes that Sebastian’s Christianity was unknown to the Emperor until Sebastian balked at his job of executing Christians who refused to offer a libation to the emperor (a god, according to the emperor cult of the time). Indeed, Sebastian went so far as to encourage two Christians martyrs in their faith, and to convert several others. Upon hearing of all this, Diocletian ordered Sebastian tied to a tree and shot to death with a firing squad of the ancient sort: bows and arrows.
This, then, is how Sebastian is best known and most commonly represented: as a beautiful youth tied to a tree or a pillar and pierced with arrows.
Like the martyr Saint Catherine, however, whose iconic imagery is also a form of execution* survived by the saint, Sebastian was riddled with arrows and left for dead but did not die. He was rescued by St. Irene, who nursed him back to health. He lived until he heckled the Emperor sometime later, at which point Diocletian had him beaten and, making certain he was dead, threw him into a privy.
The truth is that we know next to nothing of the historical Sebastian. The Catholic Encyclopedia has a very short article that says mainly that. But this has not diminished his importance or cultural prominence, and he has quite the account in the Golden Legend.
Sebastian walks in a solid tradition of military martyrs, including St. George and St. Martin of Tours, and is like George a patron saint of soldiers. Interestingly, while George was also martyred, George is typically represented in strength, slaying a dragon, while Sebastian is represented (again, like Catherine) at an ostensibly powerless moment that is simultaneously his nadir as a human and his pinnacle as a saint.
The image has fascinated artists (and writers) for millennia, including most especially Renaissance Italian artists and early modern artists from all over Europe. Botticelli painted Sebastian twice, but perhaps the single most famous painting is that of Andrea Mantegna, who painted the saint three times. The fame of these paintings may be due in part to the way in which they typify the conception of the saint and his representation as a complex icon of fantastic vulnerability and strength, suffering and fortitude, and with striking homoerotic potential (perhaps having to do with the complex relationship between pain and pleasure), which is more fully realized in, for example, Botticelli’s earlier work or in Guido Reni’s painting.
More recently, St. Sebastian has a cameo in the video for REM’s “Losing My Religion,” which seems to be very much about the hazards of being young and gay in a heteronormative culture.
There is no more or less reason to think that Sebastian himself was gay than to think that he was in the Praetorian Guard, from Gallia Narbonensis, or even, really, that he was martyred. But he has been an important icon in what we might call gay culture since at least the Italian Renaissance, and it’s not clear that it matters whether he was gay any more than it matters whether or not he even existed.
* The breaking wheel, which is said to have shattered at her touch.