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St. Sebastian (d. 287)  
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St. Sebastian in the Twentieth Century

St. Sebastian appeared centrally in the innovative work of the French painters Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, while in 1906 the American photographer F. Holland Day welcomed Sebastian to the epoch of the photograph by executing a sequence of images of the martyr modeled on working-class youths.

With the 1911 performance of Debussy's Le Martyre de St. Sébastien at Paris's Châtelet Theater, an eclectic amalgam of orchestral music, mime, and dance based on a play by Gabriele d'Annunzio and starring the dancer Ida Rubinstein, Sebastian stood at the controversial center of a stylized pageant. "Encore! Encore! Encore!" proclaimed Rubinstein's androgyne-saint as the arrows were tossed at her svelte body.

That a woman and a Jew was cast as a Christian martyr only intensified the cultural backlash against Sebastian's recent adherents, persuading the Catholic Church to blacklist the performance.

The soldier Sebastian became a popular subject in poems of the First World War, while the martyr's very name frequently stood for a Europe in a crisis of spiritual paralysis, notably in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945), whose Sebastian Flyte, scion of an aristocratic Catholic family, stands for an entire generation, as Waugh wrote, "doomed to decay and spoliation."

A resilient "decadent" motif in the work of such diverse literary artists as Cocteau, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Mishima, Kafka, Rilke, Auden, and Thomas Mann (whose Aschenbach in Mann's 1911 Death in Venice worships Sebastian as a "new type of hero"), Sebastian has also engaged numerous contemporary artists.

Robert Wilson revived the Debussy work at the Paris Opera in 1989, and Derek Jarman directed a film on the martyr's life, Sebastiane (1976), scripted entirely in Latin. Jarman's film rekindled an embellishment of the saint's legend by suggesting that Sebastian had been Diocletian's rejected lover.


Sebastian's extraordinary success as a "gay saint" is related to his status as an updated replacement for other culturally resonant "homosexual legends"--Hadrian and Antinous, Jonathan and David, Ganymede--whose narratives were reducible to narratives of love.

But the essence of Sebastian's tale resists such sentimentalization, standing as a modern emblem of radical isolationism, both a homoerotically charged object of desire and a source of solace for the rejected homosexual.

Since the advent of AIDS, St. Sebastian's historical position as a saint with the power to ward off the plague has been given a new sustenance, inspiring artists, such as the late David Wojnarowicz, to incorporate the martyr into their works. In painting, literature, film, music, theater, performance art, and recently, a video for the rock group R.E.M., St. Sebastian remains the most frequently renewed archetype of modern gay identity.

Richard Kaye

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literature >> Overview:  Aestheticism

A theory of art and an approach to living that influenced many European and American gay male and lesbian writers at the turn of the twentieth century, aestheticism stressed the independence of art from all moral and social conditions and judgments.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: St. Sebastian

Sebastian's broad and long-standing presence in queer artistic production suggests that he functions as an emblem of the feelings of shame, rejection, inverted desire, and loneliness endured by queer people in a homophobic society.

literature >> Auden, W. H.

One of the most accomplished poets of the twentieth century, W. H. Auden found that his gayness led him to new insights into the universal impulse to love and enlarged his understanding of all kinds of relationships.

arts >> Botticelli, Sandro

Renowned for his linear finesse and richly colored, meticulous paintings, Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli produced profound religious works, astute portraits, and poetic adaptations of classical mythology, all of which encourage a suggestively queer response.

literature >> Cocteau, Jean

An outspoken homosexual, Jean Cocteau was a prolific poet, novelist, critic, essayist, artist, and filmmaker.

arts >> Day, F. Holland

American intellectual publisher, aesthete, and photographer, F. Holland Day created homoerotic photographs notable for their relation to fin de siècle cultural interests.

literature >> Eliot, T[homas] S[tearns]

Although Eliot tried to suppress the fact, The Waste Land is an elegy for a young Frenchman whom he met and loved in Paris and who died in the Great War in 1915.

social sciences >> Hadrian

The love of the second-century Roman emperor Hadrian for the beautiful youth Antinous was exceptional not because the lovers were male, but because of its intensity.

literature >> Jarman, Derek

In both his films and his writings, Derek Jarman's explicit project was to celebrate gay sexuality and imagine a place for it in English culture.

literature >> Mann, Thomas

One of Germany's greatest twentieth-century authors, Thomas Mann encoded his own homosexuality in his novels but thought that homosexuality led to the destruction of social institutions and the death of the individual homosexual.

literature >> Mishima, Yukio

In his quest for masculinity, Yukio Mishima mythologized himself both in his life and his writings, culminating in his ritual suicide.

literature >> Pater, Walter

The aesthetic of the important and influential Victorian critic Walter Pater reflected a homosexual sensibility.

literature >> Rolfe, Frederick William

Frederick William Rolfe (Baron Corvo) is important for the gay literary heritage because of his distinctive decadent prose style, his outrageous decadent lifestyle, and his unashamed celebration of eroticized male friendships in his works.

literature >> Shakespeare, William

As one of the key figures that western civilization has used to define itself, William Shakespeare stands in a complicated, fiercely contested relationship to homosexuality.

arts >> Il Sodoma (Giovanni Antonio Bazzi)

Although his nickname may indicate nothing about his sexuality, Il Sodoma (Giovanni Antonio Bazzi) painted a number of works that depict same-sex intimacy.

literature >> Waugh, Evelyn

Evelyn Waugh, who had homosexual affairs while at Oxford but later led a heterosexual life, treated homosexuals both nostalgically and contemptuously in his novels.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.

arts >> Wojnarowicz, David

The first gay American artist to respond to the AIDS crisis with anger and moral outrage, David Wojnarowicz used his art as a polemical tool with which to indict those he held responsible for the AIDS epidemic and to document his own suffering.


Acta Sanctorum. Brussels: J. Reiter, 1863. (Januarii), Volume 2, 629.

Del Castillo, Michel et al., Saint Sébastien: Adonis et Martyr. Paris: Album Persona, 1983.

Dynes, Wayne. "Reply to James Saslow." Gai Saber: Journal of the Gay Academic Union 1:2 (Summer 1977): 150-151.

Forestier, Sylvie. Saint Sébastien: Rituels et Figures. Paris: Musée des arts et traditions populaires, 1984.

Kaye, Richard A. "Losing His Religion: Saint Sebastian as Contemporary Gay Martyr." Outlooks: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities and Visual Cultures. Peter Horne and Reina Lewis, eds. New York: Routledge, 1996. 86-105.

Kraehling, Victor. Saint Sébastien dans l'Art. Paris: Editions Alsatia, 1938.

Reau, Louis. L'iconographie de l'Art Chrétien. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1959.

Saslow, James M. "The Tenderest Lover: Saint Sebastian in Renaissance Painting. A Proposed Homoerotic Iconology for North Italian Art 1450-1550." Gai Saber: Journal of the Gay Academic Union. 1:1 (Spring 1977): 58-66.


    Citation Information
    Author: Kaye, Richard  
    Entry Title: St. Sebastian  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated April 5, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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