Saint Sebastian

(Not about language, but about art and sexuality.)

After I posted on the Flandrin pose (here), I was reminded of an even more widespread and powerful homoerotic subject in artworks, the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, seen here in a 1459 painting by Andrea Mantegna:

From the Wikipedia entry:

… The saint is ordinarily depicted as a handsome youth pierced by arrows.

… In his novella Death in Venice, Thomas Mann hails the “Sebastian-Figure” as the supreme emblem of Apollonian beauty, that is, the artistry of differentiated forms, beauty as measured by discipline, proportion, and luminous distinctions. This allusion to Saint Sebastian’s suffering, associated with the writerly professionalism of the novella’s protagonist, Gustav Aschenbach, provides a model for the “heroism born of weakness”, which characterizes poise amidst agonizing torment and plain acceptance of one’s fate as, beyond mere patience and passivity, a stylized achievement and artistic triumph.

… In 1976, the British director Derek Jarman made a film, Sebastiane, which caused controversy in its treatment of the martyr as a homosexual icon. However, as several critics have noted, this has been a subtext of the imagery since the Renaissance.

The reference on that last point is to a 2/10/08 piece by Charles Darwent in The Independent, “Arrows of desire: How did St Sebastian become an enduring, homo-erotic icon?” But a much more extensive discussion is given by Dominique Fernandez in A Hidden Love: Art and Homosexuality (Prestel, 2002), who begins by asking, “Why and how did St. Sebastian become the symbol of homosexual eroticism?”, noting that Yukio Mishima in Confessions of a Mask “describes how he first discovered his homosexuality when looking at a St. Sebastian by Guido Reni” (p. 90).

Factors listed by Fernandez: “the arrows, erotic and phallic symbols”; “physical strength (the saint was a soldier)”; “youth, beauty, nakedness (one wonders why he is so often shown nude, as if arrows cannot pierce cloth), solitude (the isolation of an outcast persecuted by others), and suffering and ecstasy – a union between Eros and Thanatos. Finally, the drama unfolds far from women, in a closed, military world” (pp. 90-1).

Fernandez provides (pp. 90-105) plates of works (in several media) by Trophime Bigot, Hans Memling, Antonella da Messina, Giovanni Bellini, Sandro Botticelli, Sebastiane del Piombo, Il Sodoma, Perugino, Guido Reni (1618), Kishin Shinoyama, Pierre et Gilles, Guido Reni (1640), Jusepe de Ribera, Mattia Preti, Luca Giordano, Antonio de Bellis, Pierre Puget, Antonio Giorgetti, Johann Michael Feuchtmayer (two), Gustave Moreau, Patrick Raynaud, and Nicolas Régnier, and mentions other artists, including Mantegna.

(On-line there are collections of martyred St. Sebastians here and here.)

The images of St. Sebastian from earlier times aren’t all necessarily homoerotic, but these days it’s hard to imagine creating such an image in all innocence. Here are six from the last 50 years.

1. Kisihin Shinoyama‘s 1966 photograph Yukio Mishima as St. Sebastian, capturing “the lyricism of brutality”:

2. Still in brutal territory: Leonardo Treviglio as filmed by Derek Jarman (1976):

3. Keith Haring‘s 1984 Saint Sebastian, assailed by airplanes rather than arrows:

4. One of Pierre et Gilles‘s playful depictions, from 1987:

5. Kevin Raye Larson (Krayel)’s over-the-top luminous, luscious depiction (acrylic on canvas) from 1995:

6. And Isabel Samaras‘s comic (but still homoerotic) “The Martyrdom of Pee Wee” (oil on wood, 2004):

That’s a depiction of Paul Reubens as his character Pee-wee Herman.

We’re now a long way from Mantegna, Botticelli, and so on.

3 Responses to “Saint Sebastian”

  1. The martyrdom of St. Jeremy « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] playful allusion to Saint Sebastian in art (examples both serious and playful here), minus the homoerotic […]

  2. Sticking it to Saint Sebastian « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] return to the Saint Sebastian theme, in a pincushion from the Ship of Fools site (last sampled in “Madonna of the […]

  3. David Vance | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Finally, one of his many fantasist/mythic photos, yet another version of San Sebastian: […]

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