Saint Sebastian: History’s first gay icon?

by Kittredge Cherry | Jan 20, 2021 (qspirit.net)

Sebastian by Owe Zerge

Saint Sebastian has been called history’s first gay icon and the patron saint of homosexuality.

Sebastian was an early Christian martyr killed in 288 in Rome on orders from the Roman emperor Diocletian. His feast day is Jan. 20. He is the subject of countless artworks and religious medals that show him as a near-naked youth writhing as he is shot with arrows.  The homoeroticism is obvious.

Little is known about Sebastian’s love life, so his long-standing popularity with gay men is partly based on the way he looks and the sheer sensuality of his portrayals. Many gay men also identify with his suffering and his experience of being attacked. Sebastian is a known as protector against plague, which adds to his appeal for the LGBTQ community during the AIDS pandemic. His iconography affirms what has been called “the sanctity of penetration.”

The historical Sebastian actually survived the arrow attack and was nursed back to health by Saint Irene of Rome, only to be “martyred twice” when the emperor executed him later.  In addition to his longstanding but unofficial status as patron saint of gay men, Sebastian is a patron saint of soldiers, archers and athletes.

Update Jan 2021: Sebastian in contemporary art: Sabrina Zarco

Sebastian by Sabrina Zarco

“Arrows of His Desire,” an art quilt by Sabrina Zarco

Chicana autistic artist Sabrina Zarco brings out the queer meanings of Sebastian’s suffering in her 2020 art quilt “Arrows of His Desire.” The red AIDS ribbons on his lioncloth, the arrowheads like pink triangles, and the rainbow quality of the tree all echo contemporary LGBTQ symbolism.

Zarco’s mixed-media fiber artwork was part of “The Adoration of Saint Sebastian,” an exhibition at the Acansa Gallery in North Little Rock, Arkansas. A video gallery tour by curator Will Hogg puts it in context with the other Sebastian art there.

Update Jan 2021: Sebastian in contemporary art: Andrew Freshour

Sebastian by Andrew Freshour

Saint Sebastian by Andrew Freshour

Sebastian appears with refreshing clarity in a 2020 artwork by Andrew Freshour, a New Hampshire artist and gay Episcopalian. Sebastian’s halo seems to be carved — or maybe burned — into the wood of the tree behind him. Freshour earned as BFA in illustration from the New Hampshire Institute of Art in 2013.

Update Jan 2021: Sebastian in contemporary art: Davidd Batalon

“Bird in the Hand” by Davidd Batalon

“Bird in the Hand” by Davidd Batalon (Collection of Audrey Lockwood)

In a break with traditional representations of Sebastian, he is deliberately NOT being martyred in a 2000 painting by gay Los Angeles Filipino American artist Davidd Batalon.  He bends the “arrows” in the fence downward, representing the survival of gay men during the AIDS pandemic. Batalon returned to the theme in “Sebastian Attraction,” which shows the martyr exhibiting magnetic control over metal objects.

Update Jan 2021: Sebastian in contemporary art: Keith Vaughan

The men who shot the arrows at Sebastian make a rare appearance in “The Martyrdom of St Sebastian” by Keith Vaughan. They also appear to be victims of an unjust system, looking like nude martyrs themselves.

“The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian” by Keith Vaughan. A mounted print is available from The Picture Shop on eBay.

Keith Vaughan (1912-1977) was a gay British artist who was troubled by his sexual orientation. Vaughan’s artworks are collected by many museums, including the British Museum and the Tate Gallery in London.

Rare Sebastian painting auctioned

A magnificent, rarely seen 1925 painting of Saint Sebastian by was up for auction through May 24, 2020. It appears at the top of this article.  Swedish artist Owe Zerge treasured it as his favorite painting.

During his lifetime Zerge refused many offers to sell it, and instead kept the beloved painting hanging in his home until his death in 1983. The model for Sebastian was Hugo Holmer, Zerge’s friend and travelling companion.  Zerge did many portraits of young men, including male nudes, as well as landscape and still life paintings.  His work hangs in several art museums in Sweden.

The life-size oil painting measures almost six feet tall. On May 24 the auction closed without selling the painting because the reserve price was not met, even though the bid reached $25,800 (23,719 Euros) at Garpenhus Auctions of Sweden.

Saint Sebastian in contemporary art: Regan O’Callaghan

A strong, resilient Sebastian has light stubble and a contemporary vibe as he gazes directly at the viewer in an icon by Regan O’Callaghan, an artist/priest of Maori/Irish descent based in London, England. Originally from New Zealand, he moved in 1993 to the United Kingdom, where he studied art and religion, and was ordained by the Church of England. His Sebastian icons are available at his Rrreheart Etsy shop.

“Saint Sebastian” by Regan O’Callaghan. This icon is available as a print gilded with real gold leaf on oak panel from his Rrreheart Etsy shop.

On his website, he describes how he designed this icon because he wanted to address the erotic and sexuality in faith and spirituality — even though fear and ignorance often prevent such discussion in some religious circles. He wrote:

“It is almost as if some people have let their own hands be tied behind their backs but when they look they see there is no rope! The question is why have some people allowed themselves to be conditioned into thinking the erotic as sinful in all contexts and sexuality as having implicit religious norms? The arrows of condemnation easily hit their intended targets in this situation. Hands are rung in despair and guilt but why? In this icon Saint Sebastian conveys all these emotions and confusions and yet thankfully he is not contained by the boundaries of religious judgement.”

Saint Sebastian in contemporary art: Richard Stott

Richard “Ric” Stott, a gay Methodist minister and artist in Britain, frees Sebastian from standard iconography by presenting him as a proud black man. He portrays Sebastian as Jide Macaulay, a gay Nigerian priest who who set up a church in Nigeria for LGBTQ people under dangerous circumstances and now ministers in London through House of Rainbow.Jide Macaulay as St Sebastian by Richard Stott

Jide Macaulay as Saint Sebastian by Richard Stott

Stott painted the large canvas in 2019 for an exhibit on migration. He explained the theology behind the painting in an interview at the Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Anglican blog:

“St Sebastian is often seen as an iconic gay figure and, in the Western art tradition, as a young white man – painting him in this way seeks to liberate the the idea of St Sebastian from such a narrow lens. In addition, I have painted the figure in such a way as he is pierced and wounded (as is the traditional representation of St Sebastian) and yet still standing proud and strong. This echoes some of the experiences in Jide’s life – he has faced deep and painful opposition, not least because of his sexuality, but still stands beautiful and strong: he is not a victim.”

For more info on Stott, see the previous article “Gay artist paints ‘Intimacy with Christ’: Richard Stott reflects on sensual spirituality.

Sebastian in contemporary art: Felix d’Eon

Gay Mexican artist Felix d’Eon presents the saint with brown skin and a chunky, sensuous body in “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.” A floral frame adds to the allure.

“The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian” by Felix D’Eon. Prints available on Etsy.

Based in Mexico City, D’Eon describes himself as a “latinx painter and activist dedicated to the art of queer love, romance, and sensuality,” Prints of this and his other art are available at the Art of Felix d’Eon Etsy shop.

Saint Sebastian in contemporary art: Tony O’Connell

Sebastian is a major recurring subject in the work of queer British artist Tony O’Connell.  His art was featured in London’s 2019 group exhibit “Arrows of Desire,” which explored Sebastian’s influence on contemporary artists through themes of religion, sexuality and persecution.Saint Sebastian by O'Connell

Saint Sebastian etching by Tony O’Connell

Previously O’Connell sculpted a life-size statue of Sebastian and made a film of his dramatic interactions with the figure to make a strong statement against homophobic violence in a performance art piece for All Saints Day. It includes a “Litany of the Queer Saints” that calls upon Sebastian to pray for and protect the downtrodden:

Tony O’Connell prepares to kiss St Sebastian in his film

“St. Sebastian, who strengthens the persecuted Pray for us…
St. Sebastian empowered to protect from plague and AIDS, Pray for us…
St Sebastian, loved and then abandoned by the Roman Emperor, Pray for us.
St. Sebastian, loved and increasingly abandoned by the Roman Church, Pray for us
St. Sebastian, Loved by our people, Pray for us…
Glorious Martyr and undefeated warrior,
we ask that you protect the persecuted
from tyrants and enemies.
Use your unstoppable energy
not to punish but only to humble
those who dedicate themselves to oppression and evil.”

For the whole litany and more info, see my previous post New art film highlights queer saints, Sebastian and homophobic violence for All Saints Day.

St Sebastian is martyred by arrows in O’Connell’s film

Sebastian also appears with a rainbow halo as a “wrathful protector saint” in O’Connell’s “Triptych for the 49,” a tribute to the people killed by a mass shooter at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Saint Sebastian in contemporary art: More artists

(News alert: A conservative Catholic website accused Q Spirit of promoting “gay porn” because of of the art discussed in this article. More info)

Saint Sebastian is a favorite subject of many contemporary gay artists, including Tony De Carlo (1956-2014).  He began his Sebastian series in the 1980s in response to the AIDS crisis and continued it for the rest of this life. It grew to more than 40 pictures before his death.Homage to Sebastian by Tony De Carlo gay saint

“Homage to Sebastian” by Tony De Carlo

“I chose him because he was known as the Patron Protector Saint Against the Plague, as the Plague was sweeping Europe,” De Carlo said in an interview with the Jesus in Love Blog. “It wasn’t until the year 2001 when I went into a Catholic store in New Mexico, picked up a pewter statue of Saint Sebastian, and saw a label on the bottom that said ‘Patron Saint of Homosexuals.’”

“Saint Sebastian and Matt Shepard Juxtaposed” by JR Leveroni compares Sebastian’s martyrdom with the killing of a contemporary gay martyr, Matthew Shepard (1976-1998). Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming when he was brutally beaten and left to die by two men who later claimed that they were driven temporarily insane by “gay panic.” His murder led to broadening the US hate-crimes law to cover violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Saint Sebastian and Matt Shepard Juxtaposed” by JR Leveroni

Leveroni is an emerging visual artist living in South Florida. Painting in a Cubist style, he portrays the suffering gay martyrs in a subdued way with barely a trace of blood. A variety of male nudes and religious paintings can be seen on Leveroni’s website.“Saint Sebastian No. 1” by Oscar Magnan

“Saint Sebastian No. 1” by Oscar Magnan

A tender image of the fallen Sebastian between a male companion and Saint Irene was painted by Oscar Magnan.  He has an international background and many years as a full professor of fine arts at Saint Peter’s University, a Jesuit institution in Jersey City, New Jersey.

“Self Portrait as Saint Sebastian” by Christopher Olwage

Gay New Zealand artist Christopher Olwage painted a self-portrait as Sebastian for his “Ecce Homo” exhibit inviting viewers to consider the possibility of a gay Jesus.

California gay artist Rick Herold places Saint Sebastian against a colorful, cartoon-like backdrop reminiscent of gay artist / activist Keith Haring, a gay artist who showed Saint Sebastian in his later work. “I over the years as a painter have been interested in the idea of the spirit and the flesh as one — began by Tantric art influences and then using my Catholic background,” he told the Jesus in Love Blog. He paints with enamel on the reverse side of clear plexiglas.

Herold has a bachelor of arts degree in art and theology from the Benedictine Monastic University of St. John in Minnesota and a master of fine arts degree from Otis Institute of Art in Los Angeles. His religious artwork included a Stations of the Cross commissioned by Bob Hope for a church in Ohio before a conflict over modern art with the Los Angeles cardinal led to disillusionment with the church. Herold came out as gay and turned to painting male nudes and homoerotica.

“Saint Sebastian” by Rick Herold

An important film biography for many gay men today is “Sebastiane,” directed by British independent filmmaker Derek Jarman. The Latin-language 1976 film was controversial for its homoeroticism and is considered a landmark of LGBTQ cinema.

A moment of sexual awakening is given visual form in “Peter Hujar Dreaming” by gay artist David Wojnarowicz. In a complex case of art imitating art, the sexually explicit image shows his mentor dreaming of Mishima and Sebastian.  Both Wojnarowicz and Haring eventually died of AIDS, and stimatized the disease may have informed their portrayal of the martyred Sebastian.

British artist and self-described “dandy” Sebastian Horsley gave an insightful video tour of an exhibit of Saint Sebastian paintings Reni at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.

Saint Sebastian in historical art

Other blogs have already compiled the Saint Sebastian masterpieces from art history since the Renaissance, so Q Spirit refers readers to the many online collections of Sebastian art, such as:

Saint Sebastian (Counterlight’s Peculiars)

Saint Sebastian: The Homoerotic Patron of Gay Men (Artwork I Love Blog)

The Martyrdom Of Saint Sebastian, In Ascending Order Of Sexiness And Descending Order Of Actual Martyring (The Toast)

And some rope – Saint Sebastian (Gods and Foolish Grandeur)

“Saint Sebastian” by Il Sodoma, 1525 (Wikimedia Commons)Sebastian at St. Anthony's Church Macau

Saint Sebastian statue at St. Anthony’s Church in Macau. Photo by Dave Hall.

15th-century polychromed oak carving of Saint Sebastian from Swabia, a region of southwest German known for its fine carvings. (Molly & Maud’s Place).

Saint Sebastian festivals around the world

The feast of Saint Sebastian or San Sebastián continues to be celebrated with lively festivals around the world, including in Italy, Mexico, Peru and Puerto Rico.

For example, queer and trans people participate in ritual cross-dressing every Jan. 20 at the Tunantada festival honoring patron saints Sebastian and Fabian in Jauja, Peru.  This Andean festival is explored in “Cuir Devotion,” a storytelling ethnography performance in which Enzo Vasquez Toral performs as the fictional Andean-inspired drag queen Penelope Sumac.  Originally from Peru, Toral is a PhD student at Northwestern University.  He has MA degrees from Northwestern and Princeton universities, and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard.  “Cuir Devotion” has been presented at a variety of venues and was the keynote event at the Conference on Queer and Transgender Studies in Religion on Feb. 21, 2020, at the University of California Riverside.

 Saint Sebastian in literature

Sebastian is also referenced frequently in the gay literary world. For example playwright Tennessee Williams named his martyred gay character Sebastian in “Suddenly, Last Summer,” and Oscar Wilde used Sebastian as his own alias after his release from prison.

In his autobiographical novel “Confessions of a Mask,” Japanese author Yukio Mishima writes about becoming aware of his homosexuality. It happened when he was aroused by seeing Italian Baroque artist Guido Reni’s painting of St. Sebastian in one of his father’s art books.

Saint Sebastian appears as a near-naked youth on religious medals

Saint Sebastian in poetry

Saint Sebastian is explored in not one, but two poems by Jim Wise. He describes himself as “Queer Poet, Hermetic Mendicant, and Pantheist, itinerant theologist and roving Chaote – an Earth-centered, Eros-loving, Logos-chasing, dirt-worshiping revolutionary – living in the American Midwest.

He considers himself “something of a UCC Old Catholic spiritual pilgrim” because he attended seminary under sponsorship of the United Church of Christ and was ordained in an Old Catholic jurisdiction. The following poem comes from his “Queer Psalter” collection, currently a work in progress.

Wise’s poetry has appeared in RFD Journal, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, and a host of online literary journals and zines.

The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian

By Jim Wise

Look at paintings of the saint.
The face never seems to reflect
the tormenting pain of the
arrow’s rape.

Instead, a blank expression,
a numbness, a reconciliation
with the truth that pain is
inevitable and inescapable.

Or a look of ecstasy,
as if the body craves both
the piercing and the pain.

No wonder this malleable saint
is the patron of queer men,
who have learned to hide
their pain behind a mask
of apathy, and who know
the ecstasy of piercing
and of being pierced.

Saint Sebastian prayer card from the Avery and Company Etsy shop.

Saint Sebastian

By Jim Wise

It’s easy to forget
how radical those
early believers were.
They stopped looking
for an invisible God
up in the sky and found
him in a person instead.
No wonder they were
hunted down and killed.
After all, God must remain
in Heaven and out of
our business and leave
the running of the world
to his appointed priests.
Right?

Even though they
hate us for the
heretics we are,
I think Queers know
the meaning of Christ
better than anyone.
After all, we stopped
bowing down and looking
up a long time ago.
We have been worshiping
God in the the bodies of
people our whole tribal life.
Strangers, friends, partners,
God is in the flesh of
all our lovers and our
devotion has been pure.

But
if you find God
in the bodies of
human beings
instead of up in
the sky where
a God belongs,
if you worship God
by worshipping the
life-stained skin of
those human beings,
if your Eucharist leaves
the taste of salt and
sweat instead of bland
bread on your tongue,
if your devotion to God
is best done away from
the pomp of temple crowds,
you’re likely to find yourself
on the wrong side of an
angry religious mob,
shot full of arrows and
loved only by God.

Saint Sebastian prayers

Q Spirit’s Litany of Queer Saints includes these lines:

Saint Sebastian, who by example gives courage to the down-trodden, pray for religious minorities. Pray for us to be kind and loving to one another.

A starkly simplified Saint Sebastian looks like a German expressionist woodcut in a porcelain oval medal (Amazon.com)

Links related to Sebastian as a gay saint

The Allure of St. Sebastian (Wild Reed)

Not Dead Yet: St Sebastian as Role Model (Queering the Church)

Saint Sebastian in South Carolina” by Ed Madden (Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide)

James Fenton on the lure of Saint Sebastian (Guardian)

Why is Saint Sebastian a Gay Icon?” (dailyartmagazine.com)

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To read this post in Spanish, go to:
San Sebastián: Historia de icono gay primero (Santos Queer)

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Top image credit:
“Saint Sebastian” by Owe Zerge (Garpenhus Auctions)

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This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.

This article was originally published in January 2017 and was updated for accuracy and expanded with new material on Jan. 20, 2021.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Qspirit.net presents the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBTQ spirituality.

Kittredge Cherry

FollowKittredge CherryFounder at Q SpiritKittredge Cherry is a lesbian Christian author who writes regularly about LGBTQ spirituality.She holds degrees in religion, journalism and art history.She was ordained by Metropolitan Community Churches and served as its national ecumenical officer, advocating for LGBTQ rights at the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches.

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