Sebastian in Art

Saint Sebastian in music, film and literature

Saint Sebastian is venerated in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches and his feast day is celebrated in popular village festivals in many countries. In the Catholic Church his feast day is 20th January while in the Greek Orthodox Church it is 18th December. He is the patron saint of a holy death, of archers, crossbowmen and their guilds, of makers of military laces, of makers of fencing tools, of tapestry workers, of sellers of iron, of prisoners and of athletes. Very appropriately he is the patron saint of the Florentine Compagnia della Misericordiaei, established during the plague of 1244 to minister to and bury plague victims. Over 50 towns and villages are named after him in at least 14 countries. Twenty of these are in Brazil. Best known is the Spanish town of San Sebastián. There are also rivers, ports, forts, at least one bay.

This web site is centred on the representation of Sebastian in all fields of art –painting, drawing, print-making, sculpture of all kinds, ceramics, stained glass, photography and so on. Much of this can be seen to derive specifically from his position in the Christian religion. However, he has become an important social as well as religious figure – to a much greater extent than most of the other saints represented in art. This is clear from his occurrence in drama, literature, music and film and in political caricatures.

His appearance in drama outside of the church began in 1911 when the Italian writer, poet, journalist and playwright wrote the text of Le Martyre de saint Sébastien, a five-act mystery play which was staged in Paris with incidental music by Claude Debussy, starring the celebrated Russian actor and dancer as Sebastian. This provoked scandal with the Archbishop of Paris requesting Catholics not to attend because the saint was being played by a Jewish woman. Consequently the production was not a success. There have been few attempts to stage the full work since or to play or record the full Debussy score but an orchestral suite extracted from the full score is frequently heard in the concert hall and many recordings of it are available.

Saint Sebastian has been the inspiration for a number of other works in the Classical music field, notably the mass in his honour, Missa São Sebastião, by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1937) and Philip Glass’s String Quartet no 3 which derived from his score for the film, Mishima, A Life in Four Chapters (1985). Less well-known works include Deux litanies Saint Sébastien by the French composer and counter‐tenor Frank Royon Le Mée who died of AIDS at the age of 40 and The Arrows of St Sebastian by the Australian-born composer, Jennifer Fowler. Perhaps more surprisingly, Sebastian is referred to in a number of works in Pop and Rock music. Performers of works in which he makes an appearance (albeit sometimes briefly) include the American Rock group R.E.M, Miga, Nick Cave, Patti Smith, The Pogues, Shane McGowan, Alt-J and Momus.

Some of these references to the saint, for example in the Mishima film, derive from the saint’s role as a homosexual icon. This is true, of course, in a number of paintings and sculptures and also in some literary works such as in Tennessee Williams’s play, Suddenly Last Summer. But this is by no means the case with his presence in many other literary works.

Poems in which the saint plays more than a passing role include T S Eliot’s The Love Song of St Sebastian, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sankt Sebastian and William C Bennett’s In the Dulwich Gallery ‐ before Guido’s “St. Sebastian.” and Tennessee William’s San Sebastiano de Sodoma. References to the saint appear in poems by Dannie Abse, George Szirtes and Martinus Nijhoff and many lesser known writers.

In literary fiction, there are references of varying degrees of significance in works by Stendhal, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, Charles Kingsley, G K Chesterton, Marcel Proust, Cesare Pavese, José Saramago, P G Wodehouse, George Orwell, Iris Murdoch, Nancy Mitford, Patrick White, Thomas Keneally, J G Farrell, Peter Carey, Timothy Mo, William Trevor, Yann Martel, John Banville, Nadine Gordimer Erica Jong, Andrew Sinclair, Robert Coover and others.

We have already mentioned Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers and Le Martyre de saint Sébastien as dramatic works in which the saint figures. In Yumbel's Altarpiece (1986) by the Chilean playwright and novelist, Isidora Aguirre, the victims of the dictatorship are likened to St Sebastian the martyr. In In the Middle Somewhat Elevated, a one-act ballet first staged in 1987 by Paris Opera there is a scene in which schoolgirls dance St Sebastian to death. Odder still, a statue of Sebastian was part of the stage set for a desperately short-lived Broadway musical, Nick and Nora, which ran for only one week in 1991.

Of the many films in which the saint or paintings of him make an appearance, the most individual has been Derek Jarman’s modern homosexual cult film, Sebastiane (1976), the only feature film ever to be made in Latin. We have already mentioned the film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) and Tennessee Williams’s play Suddenly Last Summer was filmed in 1959 starring Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift. In La casa delle finestre che ridono (1976), directed by Pupi Avati, a restorer is hired by the mayor of a small village nearby Ferrara to restore a painting of St. Sebastian, made by a mentally disturbed painter. Sebastian’s death is portrayed in the 1949 Italian film, Fabiola. His image also occurs in the background in a number of other films, for example in the 1976 American horror film, Carrie and in the 2001 film, Wit. And so the list goes on.

The word 'martyr' was used of pagan philosophers by St Jerome but was very early adopted by the Christian church in the first sense listed by the Oxford English Dictionary: "A person who chooses to suffer death rather than renounce faith in Christ or obedience to his teachings". However, by as early as the 15th century it was being used in non-religious contexts for a person who undergoes death or great suffering for any faith, belief, or cause and by the 16th century it was being used hyperbolically or humorously for "A person who suffers, or behaves as if suffering, acute or extended pain, unhappiness, emotional torment, etc.; a constant sufferer (to an ailment, etc.)".

It is in this last sense that politicians or other public figures under attack have been represented as martyrs – and the way to do this is to show them as St Sebastian being shot with arrows. This has been done frequently in newspaper and magazine cartoons and, in recent years, photo-shopped photographs, often of famous paintings. The earliest political cartoon of this kind was by the Irish cartoonist John Doyle. This was published in 1847 with: John Russell (Earl Russell), (1792-1878; Prime Minister 1846-52, as St Sebastian. In 1849 the famous French caricaturist Honoré Daumier represented the French opera manager and publisher Louis Désiré Véron as St Sebastian. Early in the next century, the prominent British cartoonist and writer Max Beerbohm had the British politician and statesman Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) as Sebastian.

In much more recent years we have seen the following politicians as Sebastian: Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and Paul Keating (Australian Prime Minister 1991-96). Silvio Berlusconi has been referred to as St Sebastian although without an accompanying image and on British television in October 2014, Chris Huhne, ex-cabinet minister, spoke of himself as a St Sebastian figure. Other prominent figures who have been illustrated as St Sebastian include Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury 2002-2012), Mohammed Ali and Julian Assange. We are sure there have been many others.

We can conclude that St Sebastian, his martyrdom and ideas associated with him have pervaded all aspects of Western art. For some he is the religious pin cushion, a source of jokes, an example of ecstasy become sentiment. For others his influence is much deeper, the product of nearly 2,000 years of western culture.