Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: St Sebastian
  • Creator: Follower of Perugino, painter
  • Description:

    This oil painting is believed to have been created by a follower of Pietro Perugino, likely between the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. It conveys the martyrdom of St Sebastian, the third century Roman soldier put to death for confessing his Christian faith. The painting looms large before the viewer, Sebastian dominating the center of the painting with elegant energy in his contrapposto stance. The saint wears only a loincloth, the rest of his muscular body strikingly bare and vulnerable. Two arrows visibly pierce his flesh, though the wounds exude minimal blood. A third puncture wound is present but without an accompanying arrow. The saint’s face tilts upwards toward heaven, his compelling expression transcendent and reflective. Sebastian is graced by a stippled halo, subtle and elegant behind his head. Heavenly rays descend from the top of the frame toward his head. The background is tremendously detailed; it features small ships on the water and miniscule woodland animals on the path. The city contains classic Roman architecture, including the Pantheon, Trajan’s Column and the Arch of Constantine. The painting is now housed in Haverford College’s Lutnick Library.

    St Sebastian’s tale is one of moral convictions and divine transcendence. According to The Golden Legend, the Roman emperor Diocletian favored Sebastian and made him a duke. When he called upon Sebastian and asked if he were a Christian. Sebastian confessed honestly that he was a Christian, prompting Diocletian to order his execution. Diocletian’s men shot Sebastian and left him for dead, but Sebastian survived the encounter. A Christian woman went to bury St Sebastian, but found him alive and nursed him back to health. However, Sebastian soon confronted Diocletian again, proclaiming his Christian faith once more. As a result, Diocletian ordered him to be stoned, and this time St Sebastian was successfully martyred. As a result of the two separate attempts on his life, Sebastian is sometimes referred to as the saint who was martyred twice. His first, unsuccessful martyrdom is the one typically rendered by artists. In the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, Sebastian was one of the most commonly represented saints. His cult offered protection from the plague, symbolized by demons (or sometimes angels) shooting arrows.

    The Haverford oil painting renders St Sebastian with minimal clothing, emphasizing his youth, ideal physique, and desirable features. This choice reflects the fifteenth century interest in depicting the sensuality of the nude body, a choice which enabled the viewer to feel a deeper, more intimate connection to the physical bodies of Christ and martyred saints. The subtle eroticism of sensual nude art likely elicited a wide range of responses from the devotees who viewed the images during times of prayer. The saint is drawn as an androgynous figure with some feminine characteristics assigned, such as his smooth skin and delicate features. The saint functions as an alter Christus (another Christ), evoking the original crucifixion through his pose and bodily form. Sebastian offers himself as a sacrifice to plague's punishing arrows in order to save humankind.

    St Sebastian held great psychic significance for queer authors Oscar Wilde and Yukio Mishima. Wilde, author of The Picture of Dorian Gray, took on the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth after being convicted of sodomy. The name was a subtle nod to St Sebastian, the saint whose martyrdom drew close parallels to his own. Wilde and Sebastian’s narratives are both outcast stories, tales of vital young men punished for intimate confessions of personal truths. Yukio Mishima, author of Confessions of a Mask, cites Guido Reni’s Saint Sebastian painting as the impetus for his sexual discovery. Mishima writes, “That day, the instant I looked upon the picture, my entire being trembled with some pagan joy. My blood soared up.” Indeed, St Sebastian has been widely taken up as a patron of non-normative sexual desire in part due to his sensual representation. Yukio Mishima also identified with the masochistic drive of the youthful male martyr; though besieged with painful barbs, Sebastian remains beatific. Sebastian revels in the act of penetration and self-sacrifice, drawing a parallel to Mishima’s budding gay and masochistic urges.

  • Source: TriArte: Art and Artifacts Database - Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore Colleges: http://triarte.brynmawr.edu/
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Gender in Art Martyrs Masculinity Sebastian, Martyr
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 15- 16
  • Date: Late 15th - early 16th
  • Related Work: Perugino, Saint Sebastian, 1490s, Italy (Source: Louvre).
    Benozzo Gozzoli, Martyrdom of St Sebastian, 1465, Italy (Source: Web Gallery of Art).
    Botticelli, Saint Sebastian, 1474, Italy (Source: Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin).
    Guido Reni, Saint Sebastian, 1617-1619, Italy (Source: The Prado).
    Kishin Shinoyama, Yukio Mishima photographed as St Sebastian, 1966, Japan (Source: La kermesse héroïque, blog by Larisa Oancea).
    Photos, Saint Sebastian Group on flickr.
  • Current Location: Haverford, Pennsylvania, Haverford College, Lutnick Library, Room 208, HC08-0199, Gift of Gladys Hale Griscom in honor of her father, William Woodnutt Griscom
  • Original Location: Italy
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Painting;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Oil paints; Canvas;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 198.12/106.68/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Hiller, Diana. "Saintly Blood: Absence, Presence, and the Alter Christus." Parergon 32, 1 (2015): 183-212;
    Kaye, Richard A. "'Determined Raptures': St. Sebastian and the Victorian Discourse of Decadence." Victorian Literature and Culture 27, 1 (1999): 269-303;
    Kren, Thomas. "Christian Imagery and the Development of the Nude in Europe." The Renaissance Nude. Edited by Thomas Kren with Jill Burke and Stephen J. Campbell. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2018. Pages 17-33.
    Marshall, Louise. "Reading the Body of a Plague Saint: Narrative Altarpieces and Devotional Images of St Sebastian in Renaissance Art." Reading Texts and Images: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Art and Patronage in Honour of Margaret M. Manion. Edited by Bernard J. Muir. University of Exeter Press, 2002. Pages 237-272. On Academia.edu;
    Matt, Gerald and Wolfgang Fetz. Saint Sebastian: A Splendid Readiness for Death. Kerber; distributed in the U.S. by D.A.P., 2003. Note: Catalog of an exhibition held at Kunsthalle Wien, 2003-2004;
    Mills, Robert. "'Whatever you do is a delight to me!' Masculinity, Masochism, and Queer Play in Representations of Male Martyrdom." Exemplaria 13, 1 (2001): 1-37;
    Parker, Sarah L. "The Male Wound in fin de siècle Poetry." The Male Body in Medicine and Literature. Edited by Andrew Mangham and Daniel Lea. Liverpool University Press, 2018. Pages 87-102;
    Simons, Patricia. "Separating the Men from the Boys: Masculinities in Early Quattrocento Florence and Donatello's 'Saint George'." Rituals, Images, and Words: Varieties of Cultural Expression in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Edited by Francis W. Kent and Charles Zika. Brepols, 2005. Pages 147-176. On Academia.edu;
    Talvacchia, Bette. "The Double Life of St. Sebastian in Renaissance Art." The Body in Early Modern Italy. Edited by Julia L. Hairston and Walter Stephens. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. Pages 226-248 and 363-369.