Top 5 Saints #4: Saint Sebastian

Oh Sebastian. The depictions of his attempted execution by arrows fall into two camps – either gruesomely beautiful or else…Well…This! Look at his face. That is not the face of a man bothered by being turned into a human game of Pop-Up Pirate! That’s the face of a man who is done. The others have facial expressions that tell of their mood; disappointment or anger. Seb has a face that says “I could be at home right now watching Netflix…” This is why I love Saint Sebastian. (Credit: Gun Powder Ma, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Saint Sebastian is a bit of an awkward one. There are two reasons I like him. One is because I am absolutely enamoured with Christian imagery and the image of Saint Sebastian is an incredible one.

Two, I’m a big fan of Roman history and Sebastian, to give him his Roman name, Sebastianus was not only a Roman (he wasn’t from Rome, but was a Roman citizen, from Gallia Narbonensis – roughly the south of France) but he was also said to have been a captain of the Praetorian Guard – the emperor’s elite bodyguard unit – under Diocletian and Maximian. Neither of those guys particularly liked Christians. So how did that go?

This will likely be the only image of Sebastian that I don’t make fun of! By José de Ribera, who did many works on the martyrdom of Sebastian, all of them with this same sense of vulnerability. His body is lithe, toned, not quite the Platonic ideal of a Greek statue but similar. He is clearly a strong man. Yet his form is contorted, melting into the earth, a final resting place. He will be saved, only to suffer more later on. I believe the original of this was lost in a fire. (Credit: Public Domain)

Seb kept the fact that he was a Jesus stan pretty secret. During his life, the mid to late 3rd century CE, Christianity was all over the place in Rome. Different emperors had different tolerances leading to intermittent persecutions. Being an out Christian, then, was dangerous until Flavius Valerius Constantinus (Constantine I) made an official declaration, the Edict of Milan, promoting tolerance of Christians in 313 CE.

Sadly for Sebastian, Diocletian was not so tolerant of Christians. In fact he was the first emperor to instigate a formal state persecution of Christians, the Diocletianic, or Great, Persecution. This was, as far as we know, the most severe persecution of Christians in Rome, covered the Eastern and Western Empires and led to the creation of many martyrs and saints. It was started in 303 CE and lasted the decade until the Edict of Milan.

“Erm, mate, you’ve err…You’ve got an arrow in you?” A concerned passer-by said to Sebastian.

“Yeah, so?” He replied.

“Well I thought you might be worri…”

Sebastian cut him off. “Look, I appreciate your concern but I’ve got other stuff to deal with right now. I can’t be worrying about arrows!” He said with such casualty the passer-by wondered if he felt pain at all!

I love “don’t give a shit” Sebastian. I find it hilarious. It’s such a common motif that I suspect it’s deliberate. A reflection of his mind-over-matter strength caused by his faith. (Credit: Giambattista Cima da Conegliano, ~1500, Public Domain)

Sebastian was discovered to be a Christian before this though, in 286 CE. Diocletian apparently felt betrayed that one of his guard captains was Christian so he ordered that Sebastian should be taken to a field, bound to a stake and shot with arrows.

Early Christianity was also nowhere near as sexist as it became. Because of the nature of the religion, and the humility and equality that were fundamental to it (until it got co-opted by power…That’s another discussion). Roman ladies were some of the first to offer places of worship by opening up their houses to meetings of the Christian community. One of these women, Saint Irene of Rome, went to collect the body of Sebastian and give him a proper, Christian burial. She discovered him to be still alive, despite being a human pin-cushion, and nursed him back to health.

How did he become a martyr then? Well because, the cojones on this guy, he decided that turning Christians into hedgehogs with arrows was a bit against-the-word-of-God. Instead of fleeing and living as a hermit for the rest of his life he went to a stairway he knew Diocletian would be passing and lambasted him for his treatment of Christians as Diocletian passed him.

Having a Christian bloke who’s supposed to be dead calling him out as a sinner and suggesting God will damn him if he keeps up his persecution must have upset Diocletian somewhat. He ordered his guards to beat Sebastian to death on the spot, and had him thrown into the sewer. Thus did Sebastian become a martyr.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake! You wait. Just you wait!” This Sebastian is not amused. (Credit: Public Domain)

But that’s not why I love Saint Seb. It’s for the art. Anyone who has read any of my art stuff on here knows I like a bit of brutal imagery and the form of Sebastian, usually propped or tied up against a tree, studded with arrows, rarely disappoints.

Because they either do it really well and demonstrate this most beautiful holy suffering. Or they don’t and it’s hilarious! I’ll include my favourite artistic depiction of Seb at the end, but there are so many where, facially, he is indifferent to his pain and suffering. He either looks happy, which is a bit weird in its own right, but my favourites are where he looks…Concerned with something else!

So Saint Sebastian makes the list because of his interesting Roman history and the fact that he either looks like a beautiful death or utterly hilarious.

Finally we’ll finish with my personal favourite Sebastian. The “Shit! I’m gonna die and I think I left my oven on!” Sebastian.

He is probably, actually, looking up to the heavens to seek mercy for his pain but for me it just looks like his mind is elsewhere and he’s internally bothered by something. “Did I really say that!?” or “What am I gonna have for dinner tonight?” are things he could easily be thinking. He looks less pained and more in embarrased thought. Oh, dear, I’m such a philistine. (Credit: Andrea Mantegne, 1470, Public Domain)

Want to know about more saints? Read our full list.

Happy All Saints’ Day!
Top 5 Saints #5: Saint Mary – Our Virgin of Sorrows and Mother of Christ.

Top 5 Saints #3: Saint Julian of Norwich – Locked herself in a cell for holiness.
Top 5 Saints #2: Saint Michael the Archangel – The heavy metal sword of God!
Top 5 Saints #1: Saint Francis of Assisi – Pious, compassionate and a role model.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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