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Saint Sebastian
Painting by Il Sodoma, c. 1525., depicting the martyrdom of St. Sebastian.
Born c. 256
Died c. 288
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Church
Oriental Orthodox Church
Feast January 20 (Catholic),
December 18 (Eastern Orthodox)
Attributes arrows
Patronage Soldiers, plagues, arrows, athletes/athletics/sports

Saint Sebastian (died c. 288) was a Christian saint and martyr, who is said to have been killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians. He is commonly depicted in art and literature tied to a post and shot with arrows.



The details of Saint Sebastian's martyrdom were first elaborated by Ambrose of Milan, in his sermon (number XX) on Psalm 118. Ambrose stated that Sebastian came from Milan and that he was already venerated there in the fourth century.

According to Sebastian's fifth-century Acta Sanctorum,[1] still attributed to Ambrose by the seventeenth-century hagiographer Jean Bolland, and the briefer account in Legenda Aurea, he was a man of Gallia Narbonensis who was taught in Milan and appointed as a captain of the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian and Maximian, who were unaware that he was a Christian.

Sebastian was known for having encouraged in their faith two Christian prisoners due for martyrdom, Mark and Marcellian, who were bewailed and entreated by their family to forswear Christ and offer token sacrifice. His aura was said to have cured a woman of her muteness, and that the miracle instantly converted 78 persons.

According to tradition, Mark and Marcellian were twin brothers and were deacons. They were from a distinguished family and were both married, living in Rome with their wives and children. The brothers refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and were arrested. They were visited by their father and mother, Tranquillinus and Martia, in prison, who attempted to persuade them to renounce Christianity.

Sebastian ended up converting Tranquillinus and Martia, as well as Saint Tiburtius, the son of Chromatius, the local prefect. Nicostratus, another official, and his wife Zoe were also converted. According to the legend, Zoe had been a mute for 6 years. However, she made known to Sebastian her desire to be converted to Christianity. As soon as she had, her speech returned to her. Nicostratus then brought the rest of the prisoners; these 16 persons were also converted by Sebastian.[2]

Chromatius and Tiburtius became converts; Chromatius set all of his prisoners free from jail, resigned his position, and retired to the country in Campania. Mark and Marcellian, after being concealed by a Christian named Castulus, were later martyred, as were Nicostratus, Zoe, and Tiburtius.


Reliquary of St Sebastian around 1497[3] Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Diocletian reproached Sebastian for his supposed betrayal, and "he commanded him to be led to the field and there to be bounden to a stake for to be shot at. And the archers shot at him till he was as full of arrows as an urchin (hedgehog),"[4] leaving him there for dead. Miraculously, the arrows did not kill him. The widow of Castulus, Irene of Rome, went to retrieve his body to bury it, and found he was still alive. She brought him back to her house and nursed him back to health. The other residents of the house doubted he was a Christian. One of those was a girl who was blind. Sebastian asked her "Do you wish to be with God?", and made the sign of the Cross on her head. "Yes", she replied, and immediately regained her sight. Sebastian then stood on a step and harangued Diocletian as he passed by; the emperor had him beaten to death and his body thrown in a privy. But in an apparition Sebastian told a Christian widow where they might find his body undefiled and bury it "at the catacombs by the apostles."

Of the miraculous effect of the example of Sebastian, the Golden Legend reports,

"And Saint Gregory telleth in the first book of his Dialogues that a woman of Tuscany which was new wedded was prayed for to go with other women to the dedication of the church of Sebastian, and the night tofore she was so moved in her flesh that she might not abstain from her husband, and on the morn, she having greater shame of men than of God, went thither, and anon as she was entered into the oratory where the relics of Saint Sebastian were, the fiend took her and tormented her before all the people."

Sebastian was also said to be a defense against the plague. The Golden Legend transmits the episode of a great plague that afflicted the Lombards in the time of King Gumburt, which was stopped by the erection of an altar to Sebastian in the Church of Saint Peter in the Province of Pavia.

Because Sebastian had been thought to have been killed by the arrows, and yet was not, and then later was killed by the same emperor who ordered him shot, he is sometimes known as the saint who was martyred twice.

Location of remains

The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, by Andrea Mantegna, 1456-59.

The remains asserted to be those of Sebastian are currently housed in Rome in the Basilica Apostolorum, built by Pope Damasus I in 367 on the site of the provisional tomb of St. Peter and Saint Paul. The church, today called San Sebastiano fuori le mura, was rebuilt in the 1610s under the patronage of Scipione Borghese. Others sources say that his body would have been carried from Rome to Soissons (France), into Saint Medard abbey.

In art and literature

Saint Sebastian, by Carlo Saraceni
(c. 1610-15), Castle Museum, Prague.

The earliest representation of Sebastian is a mosaic in the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (Ravenna, Italy) dated between 527 and 565. The right lateral wall of the basilica contains large mosaics representing a procession of 26 martyrs, led by Saint Martin and including Sebastian. The martyrs are represented in Byzantine style, lacking any individuality, and have all identical expressions.

Another early representation is in a mosaic in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli (Rome, Italy), which was probably made in the year 682. It shows a grown, bearded man in court dress but contains no trace of an arrow.[5] The archers and arrows begin to appear by 1000, and ever since have been far more commonly shown than the actual moment of his death by clubbing, so that there is a popular misperception that this is how he died.[6]

As protector of potential plague victims (a connection popularized by the Golden Legend[7]) and soldiers, Sebastian naturally occupied a very important place in the popular medieval mind, and hence was among the most frequently depicted of all saints by Late Gothic and Renaissance artists, in the period after the Black Death.[8] The opportunity to show a semi-nude male, often in a contorted pose, also made Sebastian a favourite subject.[9] His shooting with arrows was the subject of the largest engraving by the Master of the Playing Cards in the 1430s, when there were few other current subjects with male nudes other than Christ. Sebastian appears in many other prints and paintings, although this was also due to his popularity with the faithful. Among many others, Botticelli, Perugino, Titian, Pollaiuolo, Giovanni Bellini, Guido Reni (who painted the subject seven times), Mantegna (three times), Hans Memling, Gerrit van Honthorst, Luca Signorelli, El Greco, Honoré Daumier, John Singer Sargent and Louise Bourgeois all painted Saint Sebastians.[10]

The saint is ordinarily depicted as a handsome youth pierced by arrows. There were predella scenes, when required, often of his arrest, confrontation with the Emperor, and final beheading. The illustration in the infobox is the Saint Sebastian of Il Sodoma, at the Pitti Palace, Florence.

St. Sebastian tended by Saint Irene, Georges de La Tour c 1645.

A mainly seventeenth-century subject, though found in predella scenes as early as the 15th century,[11] was St Sebastian tended by St Irene, painted by Georges de La Tour, Trophime Bigot (four times), Jusepe de Ribera, Hendrick ter Brugghen and others. This may have been a deliberate attempt by the Church to get away from the single nude subject, which is already recorded in Vasari as sometimes arousing inappropriate thoughts among female churchgoers.[12] The Baroque artists usually treated it as a nocturnal chiaroscuro scene, illuminated by a single candle, torch or lantern, in the style fashionable in the first half of the 17th century.

There exist several cycles depicting the life of Saint Sebastian. Among them, the frescos in the "Basilica di San Sebastiano" of Acireale (Italy) with paintings by Pietro Paolo Vasta.

Egon Schiele, an Austrian Expressionist artist, painted a self-portrait as Saint Sebastian in 1915. During Salvador Dalí's "Lorca (Federico García Lorca) Period", he painted Sebastian several times, most notably in his "Neo-Cubist Academy". For reasons unknown, the left vein of Sebastian is always exposed.

In 1911, the Italian playwright Gabriele d'Annunzio in conjunction with Claude Debussy produced a mystery play on the subject. The American composer Gian Carlo Menotti composed a ballet score for a Ballets Russes production which was first given in 1944.

In his novella Death in Venice, Thomas Mann hails the "Sebastian-Figure" as the supreme emblem of Apollonian beauty, that is, the artistry of differentiated forms, beauty as measured by discipline, proportion, and luminous distinctions. This allusion to Saint Sebastian's suffering, associated with the writerly professionalism of the novella's protagonist, Gustav Aschenbach, provides a model for the "heroism born of weakness", which characterizes poise amidst agonizing torment and plain acceptance of one's fate as, beyond mere patience and passivity, a stylized achievement and artistic triumph.

In 1976, the British director Derek Jarman made a film, Sebastiane, which caused controversy in its treatment of the martyr as a homosexual icon. However, as several critics have noted, this has been a subtext of the imagery since the Renaissance.[13] Also in 1976, a figure of Saint Sebastian appeared throughout the American horror film Carrie.[14]


The Twin Spires of the Basilica Minore de San Sebastian, one of the parishes in Quiapo, Manila. The Basilica is being run by the Recollects of the Province of Saint Ezequiel Moreno in the Philippines.
Fountain with statue of Saint Sebastian in the Obregón boulevard park in Colonia Roma in Mexico City.
Saint Sebastian by El Greco (1578) in Cathedral of San Antolin, Palencia.

In the Roman Catholic Church Sebastian is commemorated by an optional memorial on 20 January. In the Church of Greece, Sebastian's feast day is 18 December.

As a protector from the bubonic plague, Sebastian was formerly one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers (until the suppression of that cult in 1969). The connection of the martyr shot with arrows with the plague is not an intuitive one. In Greco-Roman myth, Apollo, the archer-god is the deliverer of pestilence; the figure of Sebastian Christianizes this familiar literary trope. The chronicler Paul the Deacon relates that Rome was freed from a raging pestilence in 680, by the patronage of this saint.

Sebastian, like Saint George, was one of a class of military martyrs and soldier saints of the Early Christian Church, whose cults originated in the 4th century and culminated at the end of the Middle Ages, in the 14th and 15th centuries, both in the East and the West. Details of their martyrologies may provoke some skepticism among modern readers, but certain consistent patterns emerge that are revealing of Christian attitudes. Such a saint was an athleta Christi and a "Guardian of the heavens".

Also, in Roman Catholicism, Sebastian is the patron saint of athletes. He is also patron saint of archers.

Sebastian is the patron and protector saint of the city of Qormi (Malta), and is the patron saint of Caserta and Petilia Policastro (Italy) and San Sebastián (Spain).

He is also the patron of San Sebastian College - Recoletos, Manila. Beside it is the Parish of San Sebastian.

Sebastian is the patron saint of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Informally, in the tradition of the Afro-Brazilian religious syncretism Umbanda, Sebastian is often associated with Oxossi, especially in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

In his 1906 Reminiscences, Carl Schurz recalls the annual "bird shoot" pageant of the Rhenish town of Liblar which was sponsored by the "Saint Sebastian Society," a club of sharpshooters and their sponsors to which nearly every adult member of town belonged.[15]

See also


  1. ^ Acta S. Sebastiani Martyris, in J.-P. Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus Accurante (Paris 1845), XVII, 1021-1058; the details given here follow the abbreviated account in Jacob de Voragine, Legenda Aurea.
  2. ^ Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, A Dictionary of Miracles: Imitative, Realistic, and Dogmatic (Chatto and Windus, 1901), 11.
  3. ^ "Reliquary of St Sebastian". Metalwork. Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  4. ^ The Legenda Aurea.
  5. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia 1908.
  6. ^ Barker, 94-95
  7. ^ Barker, pp. 96-97,
  8. ^ Boeckl, Christine M.; Images of plague and pestilence: iconography and iconology, pp. 76-80, Truman State University, 2000, ISBN 0-943549-85-X, 9780943549859 Google books
  9. ^ Barker, Shiela, The Making of a Plague Saint, Ch. 4 (pp. 114-117 especially) in Piety and plague: from Byzantium to the Baroque, Ed. Franco Mormando, Thomas Worcester Truman State University, 2007,ISBN 1-931112-73-8, 9781931112734, Google books
  10. ^ (For a discussion of the image of St. Sebastian in the paintings of Ribera, see: Williamson, Mark A. "The Martyrdom Paintings of Jusepe de Ribera: Catharsis and Transformation", PhD Dissertation, Binghamton University, Binghamton, New York 2000 (available online at
  11. ^ Boeckl, p. 77
  12. ^ Barker, 117
  13. ^ How did St Sebastian become an enduring, homo-erotic icon?
  14. ^ "Carrie (1976) - Trivia". IMDb. Retrieved 2009-10-31. 
  15. ^ Carl Schurz, Reminiscences (3 vols.), New York: McClure Publ. Co., 1907, Vol. 1, Chap. 2, pp. 46-48, Chap. 3, pp. 81-83.

External links


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ST SEBASTIAN, a Christian martyr whose festival is celebrated on the 10th of January. According to St Ambrose (in Psalm 118, oct. 20) Sebastian was a native of Milan, went to Rome at the height of Diocletian's persecution, and there suffered martyrdom. The Acta of St Sebastian, falsely attributed to the same St Ambrose, are far less sparing of details. They make him a citizen of Narbonne and captain of the first cohort under the emperors Diocletian and Maximian. Having secretly become a Christian, Sebastian was wont to encourage those of his brethren who in the hour of trial seemed wavering in their profession. This was conspicuously the case with the brothers Marcus and Marcellinus. He made many converts, several of whom suffered martyrdom. Diocletian, having been informed of this conduct, sent for him and earnestly remonstrated with him, but, finding him inflexible, ordered him to be bound to a stake and shot to death. After the archers had left him for dead, a devout woman, Irene, came by night to take his body away for burial, but, finding him still alive, carried him to her house, where his wounds were dressed. No sooner had he wholly recovered than he hastened to, confront the emperor, reproaching him with his impiety; Diocletian ordered him to be instantly carried off and beaten to death with rods. The sentence was forthwith executed, his body being thrown into the cloaca, where, however, it was found by another pious matron, Lucina, whom Sebastian visited in a dream, directing her to bury him ad Catacombas juxta vestigia apostolorum. It was on this spot, on the Appian way, that was built the basilica of St Sebastian, which was a popular place of pilgrimage in the middle ages. The translation of his relics to Soissons in 826 made that town a new centre of his cult. St Sebastian is specially invoked against the plague. As a young and beautiful soldier, he is a favourite subject of sacred art, being most generally represented undraped, and severely though not mortally wounded with arrows.

See Acta Sanctorum, January, ii. 257-296; Bibliotheca hagiographica Latina (Brussels, 18 99), n. 7543-7549; A. Bell, Lives and Legends of the Evangelists, Apostles and other early Saints (London, 1901), pp. 238-240. (H. DE.)

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