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St. Sebastian (d. 287)  
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Although he has had various embodiments throughout history--plague saint in the Middle Ages, shimmering youth of Apollonian beauty throughout the Renaissance, "decadent" in the late nineteenth century--Sebastian has long been known as the homosexual's saint.

Precisely when and how this role evolved may be related to details of St. Sebastian's life, the earliest reference to which can be found in the Martyrology of 354 A.D., which refers to him as a young nobleman from either Milan or Narbonne, whose official capacity was commander of a company of archers of the imperial bodyguard.

According to the Church's official Acta Sanctorum, Sebastian, serving under the emperors Diocletian and Maximian, came to the rescue of Christian soldiers, Marcellinus and Mark, and thereby confessed his own Christianity. Diocletian insisted that Sebastian be shot to death by his fellow archers; these orders were followed, and Sebastian was left for dead.

What is often neglected in later accounts is that Sebastian survived this initial attack after having been nursed by a "pious woman," Irene. Diocletian was required to order a second execution, and this time Sebastian was beaten to death by soldiers in the Hippodrome.

These details--based on accounts written centuries after Sebastian's death and therefore largely apocryphal--may have helped form Sebastian's subsequent reputation as a homosexual martyr since his story constitutes a kind of "coming out" tale followed by his survival of an execution that may be read symbolically as a penetration.

Possibly his role as a plague saint may have generated associations between Sebastian and what, in a nineteenth-century medical context, was represented as a disease, homosexuality.

St. Sebastian in the Renaissance

In the Renaissance, Sebastian emerged as an extraordinarily popular subject for painters, perhaps rivaled only by Jesus and Mary; he was especially prized by artists who saw in the young saint a figure of Hellenic loveliness. Numerous painters--Tintoretto, Mantegna, Titian, Guido Reni, Giorgione, Perugino, Botticelli, Bazzi ("Il Sodoma")--recast Sebastian as a martyr beatifically receptive to his arrow-ridden fate.

There is some evidence to suggest that St. Sebastian fostered implications in the Renaissance; in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1600), for example, the character of Sebastian, saved from a shipwreck by Antonio, is the intense focus of Antonio's love: "And to his image, which methought did promise / Most venerable worth, did I devotion."

St. Sebastian in the Nineteenth Century

It was primarily the Renaissance depiction of Sebastian that served a later, explicitly homosexual cult of St. Sebastian that took hold with remarkable force beginning in the nineteenth century.

Visiting Rome in 1844, Charles Dickens expressed bewilderment that St. Sebastian should have been such a pervasive subject for Italian artists, bemoaning the "indiscriminate and determined raptures" of certain critics as "incompatible with the true appreciation of the really great and transcendent works of art."

Increasingly, Sebastian in the nineteenth century is fought over by Victorian traditionalists and mischief-minded aesthetes attempting to sustain competing conceptions of the martyr's identity.

In his religiously inspired 1847 Sketches in the History of Christian Art, Lord Lindsay praised a series of fourteenth-century frescoes by noting that "their peculiar merit consists in the conception of the character of St. Sebastian, not as hot, enthusiastic youth, the fond fancy of later painters, but as a mature man, circumspect and wary while caution will suit his purpose, but resolute as a lion when it becomes necessary to throw off disguise."

Lord Lindsay traces Sebastian's status as feminized male to the misguided conceptions of Renaissance painters.

The godfather of English aestheticism, Walter Pater, devotes a fictional "imaginary portrait" to the tale of "Sebastian von Storck" (1886) in which one can observe a new transmutation of the martyr, this time as a death-courting passive youth.

No longer representing stalwart Christian courage, Pater's Sebastian is "in flight from all that was positive," who seemed "in love with death, preferring winter to summer."

Increasingly, he became a sadomasochistic icon of deliberate perversity. "What is religious about that St. Sebastian, brilliant in his youthfulness, like the suffering Bacchus of Christianity?" asks a character in Anatole France's novel The Red Lily (1894).

Oscar Wilde, who adopted the pseudonym "Sebastian Melmoth" on his release from prison, invokes Sebastian in his 1881 poem to Keats, "The Grave of Keats," whom he describes as "fair Sebastian, and as foully slain." For Wilde, the Roman martyr becomes a self-consciously deployed subcultural emblem.

Frederick Rolfe's novel, The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (written in 1909 but published in 1934), features a hero who is himself writing a novel with a character named Sebastian Archer as its protagonist.

Rolfe's 1891 sonnets dedicated to a Reni Sebastian in Rome's Capitoline gallery were considered so scandalous on their publication in The Artist magazine that they helped in the ousting of Charles Kains-Jackson as editor.

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The martyrdom of St. Sebastian depicted in a 1907 photograph by F. Holland Day.
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