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?
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.
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.
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.
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.