Connect with us

DailyArtMagazine.com – Art History Stories

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.

Comments

More in Bodies And Erotic Art

  • Bodies And Erotic Art

    The Sumptuous Wallace Collection, Fragonard and The Swing

    By

    The Wallace Collection displays a collection, which came together in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, collected by the first four Marquesses of Hertford. One piece, living in the beautiful collection, is The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The Rococo oil painting came to life between 1767-1768 and...

  • Art History 101

    Titian’s Danae (Metamorphoses II)

    By

    In a series of articles we are going to meet each of the seven Poesies, which Titian delivered Phillip II of Spain in the 1550s and early 1560s. Every painting-poem translated a small section of the Epic poem Metamorphoses, by Roman poet Ovid, and Titian started...

  • Ancient Greece

    Venus Vincit Omnia. Venus in Art

    By

    Venus (also known by her Greek name Aphrodite) is the Goddess of Love. We’ve explored some famous Venus’ here. Next, Velázquez’s portrait put her onto the list of contenders for “Best Bums in Art.” Then there’s a discussion of Courbet’s paintings, along with Boticelli’s depiction of...

  • Diego Velázquez, The Rokeby Venus, 1644, National Gallery, London Diego Velázquez, The Rokeby Venus, 1644, National Gallery, London

    Baroque

    Painting of the Week: Diego Velázquez, The Rokeby Venus

    By

    Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599 – 1660) was the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV, and one of the most important painters of the Spanish Golden Age and European Baroque. And The Rokeby Venus is his only surviving nude, three others...

  • 21st century

    Bold Is Beautiful – a Guide to Spotting a Ravinder Reddy Sculpture

    By

    Ravinder Reddy (b. 1956) is a contemporary Indian sculptor. His sculptures of women are now some of the most recognisable examples of contemporary South Asian Art. He studied in Vadodara, India, and also in Britain. Since the 1980s his art has been fascinated with female bodies and...

To Top

Just to let you know, DailyArt Magazine’s website uses cookies to personalise content and adverts, to provide social media features and to analyse traffic. Read cookies policy