fbpx
Connect with us

DailyArtMagazine.com – Art History Stories

Why is St Sebastian a Gay Icon?

Guercino, St Sebastian, 1591–1666, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ, USA.

Bodies And Erotic Art

Why is St Sebastian a Gay Icon?

One may think that Christian saints have little in common with 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, who is the patron saint of soldiers and athletes have to do with that?

St Sebastian as a gay icon: Andrea Mantegna, St. Sebastian, ca.1457-1459, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.
Andrea Mantegna, St. Sebastian, ca.1457-1459, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

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.

St. Sebastian as gay icon: Egon Schiele, Self Portrait as St. Sebastian, 1914, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.
Egon Schiele, Self Portrait as St. Sebastian, 1914, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

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

St. Sebastian as a gay icon: El Greco, St Sebastian, 1612, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.
El Greco, St Sebastian, 1612, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

The paintings of St Sebastian, with their languid eroticism, made 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 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) marked the beginning of the author’s sexual self-discovery.

St. Sebastian as a gay icon: Luigi Ontani, San Sebastian in Calvenzano forest (d'après Guido Reni), 1970, private collection. Museo Ontani.
Luigi Ontani, San Sebastian in Calvenzano forest (d’après Guido Reni), 1970, private collection. Museo Ontani.

Why St Sebastian and not any other saint? Susan Sontag, the novelist, pointed out that his face doesn’t register 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:

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

  • Ancient Greece

    There Were Really Hot Guys in Ancient Greece: the Barberini Faun

    By

    Drunk, sleeping men are rarely, if ever, beautiful and sexually appealing, but this is not the case with this really sexy faun from ancient Greece. This monumental statue, today kept in Munich, is not only intriguing for its aesthetics, but also for its obscure origins, stormy...

  • 20th century

    The Queen of Neoclassical Photography: Nelly

    By

    For many, photography is merely a sophisticated way of immortalizing the current and carrying that frozen moment—which is impossible to recreate —onward to the vastness of time. Elli Sougioultzoglou-Seraidari (Έλλη Σουγιουλτζόγλου-Σεραϊδάρη), known as Nelly, a Greek photographer, not only captured mesmerizing shots throughout her lifetime, but...

  • 20th century

    Scandalous World of Hans Bellmer: Dolls, Ropes, and Erotic Photography

    By

    “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me”, said Terence, Roman playwright sometime in the 2nd century BCE. I think that art and what inspired what you will see below, is exactly this: human imperfections, human needs, human dreams, human psyche… It...

  • 20th century

    Masterpiece of the Week: Saturnino Herrán, Our Ancient Gods

    By

    Saturnino Herrán’s Our Ancient Gods is a masterful painting of Mexican Modernism from the early 20th century. It evokes the strength, dignity, and beauty of the Pre-Columbian people who fill Mexico’s lengthy history before the Spanish invasions of the 16th century. Herrán painted Our Ancient Gods...

  • Bodies And Erotic Art

    History of Medicine in Art. Collection of Artworks at Wellcome Library in London

    By

    If you find any joy and inspiration in our stories, PLEASE SUPPORT DailyArt Magazine with modest donation. We love art history and we want to keep going with writing about it. $5 $10 $25 $50 $100 MONTHLY

To Top