It’s an image that, once you’ve seen it, is pretty hard to forget: A near-naked guy, tied to a post, has been shot full of arrows. The victim, identified as Saint Sebastian, is the subject of hundreds of paintings and sculptures. Among the artists who have painted that gruesome scene are Botticelli, Rubens, Bellini, Van Dyck and (shown here) Andrea Mantegna. There were many earlier artists who also commemorated Sebastian’s agony, but the Medieval painters were still having their struggles with things like perspective and human facial expressions, so images from that era aren’t as powerful. In Hans Memling’s version, for example, Sebastian almost appears to be smirking, as though he’s tolerating a youthful prank.
I’ve seen Sebastian suffering in several art museums and churches, and wondered what his crime was, and why his attorney wasn’t able to get his sentence reduced to, say, having his fingernails yanked out. I went to the semi-official Catholic website (where by the way, they currently have some great deals on saint medallions) to find out what the story was. As with most of the “biographies” of early martyrs, a tiny nougat of fact is heavily encrusted with legend and tradition.
Sebastian lived in third-century Rome, and was supposedly a Captain in the Praetorian Guard. Those guys were, in effect, the Secret Servicemen for the emperors. Sebastian was part of the bodyguard detail for Diocletian, whose reign was notable for adminstrative reforms and persecution of Christians. Somehow Diocletian found out that Sebastian was a Christian and had been converting some other members of the Praetorian Guard. In 286 C.E., Diocletian ordered Sebastian tied to a post and shot with arrows, giving later generations of artists something to paint.
Get this, though — Sebastian didn’t die from his wounds. A woman who later became known as St. Irene nursed him back to health. Once all those arrow holes healed up, though, Sebastian confronted Diocletian, calling him out in front of a bunch of the emperor’s subjects. Diocletian didn’t take any chances this time. Depending on which source you believe, the emperor either had Sebastian stoned to death or beaten to death with clubs in 287 C.E. Sebastian’s body was taken to the Appian Way and turned into part of the roadbed.
For reasons that aren’t clear to me, Sebastian is now the patron saint of athletes. Perhaps it’s because, as we can see from the many paintings of his torso, he was buff. (Or “cut”, as we body-building enthusiasts like to say.) Saint Sebastian’s feast day is January 20, and is a national holiday in Spain. In the U.S., January 20 is known, every four years, as Inauguration Day. There is no connection between that and Sebastian; I’m just noting the coincidence.
Let me be among the first to wish you a happy Saint Sebastian’s Day, and remind you to use your bow and arrows responsibly.