Let me clue you in on a great little secret about paintings of saints and martyrs: it’s a long-standing excuse to paint Babes. You know how Renaissance artists were always like, “It’s VERY historically important that I paint this naked babe with a swan that looks like a dick growing out of a snowdrift so that posterity never forgets the importance of Leda for…for Iliad reasons”? Same thing with martyrs, a lot of the time, and the same thing only more so and especially for our pal Saint Sebastian.
Sebastian was martyred under the persecution of Diocletian in the late third century. Weirdly, despite the fact that he was probably clubbed to death, he is almost always depicted as having been shot to death with arrows. He is also almost always depicted as a Terminal Babe, often at the expense of looking like he is actually dying.
But the best part about Saint Sebastian is that he became a stealth gay icon in the 1800s due to his A) babeliness and B) arrow wounds.
The earliest gay icon may have been Saint Sebastian, a Christian saint and martyr, whose combination of strong and shirtless physique, symbolic arrow-pierced flesh and rapturous look of pain have intrigued artists, both gay and straight, for centuries and began the first explicitly gay cult in the nineteenth century. Journalist Richard A. Kaye wrote, “Contemporary gay men have seen in Sebastian at once a stunning advertisement for homosexual desire (indeed, a homoerotic ideal), and a prototypical portrait of tortured closet case.”
I have no quarrel with this. It works for me. But way before Uranians adopted him as their favorite red-lipped boy, artists all over Europe were emphasizing the babeliness of Saint Sebastian’s almost-discarded toga over the horribly gruesome death they were supposedly painting. The cuter the saint, the milder the death.
This is what I expect to see when I look at a painting titled “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian,” you know? I know what I’m getting into if something’s called “The Garden Of Fleshly Delights” or “An Afternoon With The Lotus-Eaters” or “Venus and Literally Anyone,” but I see the word “martyrdom” and I expect to see a dour, fully-clothed saint pointing angrily at heaven. And this painting delivers on that promise.
Also good! People are actually shooting at him, with arrows, and he looks unhappy about that. Or, at least, sort of put out.
“Mallory, that seems like a really low bar for judging these paintings?” WAIT AND SEE, MY FRIEND.
Leaving aside the fact that this Saint Sebastian has exactly one arrow in him, and it is in his leg, it’s not bad. Most of his pelvis is covered, he has a generally “dead” quality to him that I found particularly effective, and his face isn’t shining like he just fellated a tube of coral lipstick.
“They couldn’t possibly get more outlandish, he’s in a bulging diaper –” WAIT FOR IT.
Here is where we get into one of my favorite poses, the “Dancing Sebastian.” He’s been roughed up a bit, but he is also clearly about to launch into a tidy little two-step.
There’s nude and there’s nude, you know? There’s “this person happens to be naked” and there’s “LOOK AT HOW NAKED THIS PERSON IS.” The little bundle of cloth draped carelessly but also exactly on his dick belongs solidly to the “LOOK AT HOW NAKED HE IS” category.
WHY DID YOU PAINT A CHILD’S FACE ON THE SWOLEST BODY IN THIS PICTURE
This Saint Sebastian does not bleed, but he does have incredible calf definition, and is conveniently bound to the tree in exactly the spot men who are proud of their biceps get barbed-wire tattoos.
This one doesn’t even have any arrows in him, there aren’t any arrows even in the picture, he’s just falling over and not-wearing a beautiful crimson robe, he is just dying of HAVING A BEAUTIFUL PRE-RAPHAELITE MOUTH
This is the cover of a Smiths album
he is SUCKING IN HIS STOMACH and JUTTING OUT HIS HIPS, I adore how much he is not bleeding from his two shallow flesh wounds and how carefully he has been trimming his bikini zone
NOW HE IS HOLDING THE ARROWS HIMSELF AND MAKING CALF-EYES AT GOD
he is CHECKING OUT his own ARROW WOUND, that is depraved and I LOVE IT
good night guys
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.