Sebastian in Art

About this site

We first encountered St Sebastian more than 40 years ago when we visited Italy for the first time. From a protestant background in Australia, holding no truck with saints and images, we were struck by the apparently pagan figures on Christian altars (as we had previously been struck by the overweening pride of the families who place their beautiful but grandiose tombs in a prominent position in a holy place). Making sense of this profusion of imagery was initially like stamp collecting; we learnt to recognise the saints by their attributes. Among these representations, Saint Sebastian stood out because of his youth and beauty and the depictions of him shot by arrows in his 'first martyrdom'. We should mention that many martyr saints had two martyrdoms. The first was a dramatic event from which the saint miraculously escaped, thus showing the glory of god. The second led to the death of the saint since without death for the faith there was no martyrdom. Sebastian's first martyrdom has a far larger place in art and literature than his second, less picturesque, martyrdom. Moving on 10 years, while temporarily living on opposite sides of the globe we wanted a joint project and chose St Sebastian. Since then we have sought out his image on five continents, from Sri Lanka and Goa to Brazil and Ecuador, from Canada to Australia, but particularly in Italy. We have seen more than 3000 representations and know of more than 12,000 others. After starting our search we discovered that Sebastian was culturally more important than we had realised. From an important plague saint for more than 1000 years, he entered modern culture as an image of the persecuted or afflicted and as a homosexual icon. We first became aware of his wide reach when we saw the Old Vic production of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers in 1972 and heard these lines;

" It was precisely this notion of infinite series which in the sixth century BC led the Greek philosopher Zeno to conclude that since an arrow shot towards a target first had to cover half the distance, and then half the remainder, and then half the remainder after that, and so on ad infinitum, the result was, as I will now demonstrate, that though an arrow is always approaching its target, it never quite gets there, and Saint Sebastian died of fright". Act I

Many have helped us in this search. Our Italian friend, Sebastian CorrĂ  inspired us with his scholarly website , which is dedicated to representations of the saint by Italian artists and artists who spent a prolonged period in Italy. One day maybe we shall write the long intended book. This website is the first step.