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Why Is St Sebastian A Gay Icon?

Bodies And Erotic Art

Why Is St Sebastian A Gay Icon?

One may think that Christian saints have little in common with the gay culture. But there is an exception to every rule: if you see a handsome guy in his early twenties perforated by arrows, you know it’s St Sebastian, probably the earliest known gay icon. However, what does a captain in the Praetorian Guard, killed for converting Romans to Christianity, the patron saint of soldiers and athletes have to do with that?

Andrea Mantegna, St. Sebastian, circa 1457 - 1459, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna st sebastian a gay icon

Andrea Mantegna, St. Sebastian, circa 1457 – 1459, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

First of all, Sebastian was not killed by arrows. He was rescued from the stake by St Irene of Rome to later harangue Diocletian for his paganism. Unmoved by his tenacity, the emperor had Sebastian clubbed to death and his body dumped in Rome’s sewers.

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait as St. Sebastian (poster), 1914, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria, st sebastian

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait as St. Sebastian (poster), 1914, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

History, however, is far from visual arts and iconography, established by the painters already in the Renaissance. St Sebastian is always showed at the stake, punctured by arrows, awaiting the martyrdom and raising his eyes up to heaven. His tense naked body, covered only by a narrow loincloth, fired the imagination of painters, to an extent that he might be the most frequently portrayed male saint in art history.

El Greco, St Sebastian, 1612, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain, st sebastian a gay icon

El Greco, St Sebastian, 1612, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

The paintings of St Sebastian with their languid eroticism made the men see in him “at once a stunning advertisement for homosexual desire (indeed, a homoerotic ideal), and a prototypical portrait of a tortured closet case”, as a journalist Richard A. Kaye wrote. Yukio Mishima, one of the most important Japanese writers of the 20th century wrote in the autobiographical Confession of a Mask (1949), that a glimpse of a reproduction of Guido Reni’s painting (which is also the cover of this article) in a book marked the beginning of the author’s sexual self-discovery.

Luigi Ontani, San Sebastian in Calvenzano forest (d'après Guido Reni), 1970, st sebastian a gay icon

Luigi Ontani, San Sebastian in Calvenzano forest (d’après Guido Reni), 1970, private collection

Why is it St Sebastian and not any other saint? Susan Sontag, the novelist, pointed out that his face doesn’t register the physical pain, that his beauty and his suffering are eternally divorced from one other. A moving reference to all suffering gays, isn’t it?

Read more on homosexuality in art in our articles: “Male Homosexuality in Western Art” and “Lesbianism in Art? Warning: Erotic Scenes In Abundance“.

Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.

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