St Sebastian the Gay Icon and the Homoeroticism of Martyrdom

Before Judy Garland, Bette Davis and David Beckham, there was one gay icon. If Karen Carpenter makes an unlikely icon, then he is perhaps more improbable. So great is his influence that the playwright Oscar Wilde assumed his name after his release from prison when he lived abroad. Whether it be Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited or the film Velvet Goldmine, the name is inextricably linked to homosexuality. The icon is St Sebastian.

And while it seems faintly ridiculous that an early Christian saint could possibly become an icon, he has. Put it this way, how many other saints have made it to the cover of a gay magazine?

Historical records for Sebastian’s life are scarce, but it is known that he was a captain in the Praetorian Guard, the emperor’s elite protection, first during the reign of Carinus, then Diocletian. Although a Christian, he concealed his faith for several years but proselytised to those convicted by the emperor. When his beliefs were eventually discovered he was sentenced to death (circa 288 AD) by Diocletian by being used as a live archery target. So many arrows were shot through his body that the hagiographical Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine compares his body to that of a porcupine. In subsequent centuries he became a patron saint for soldiers and athletes, and a protector against plague.

Although he was unmarried, there is little in any of this that is queer. In fact, the earliest representation of St Sebastian in Byzantine Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo show him to be a solemn even unremarkable man; the 7th century mosaic in San Pietro in Vincoli portrays a middle-age, bearded man.   

The shift in St Sebastian’s image came in the early 15th century Italy. Humanism had become more intellectually dominant and artists looked to Classical Greece and Rome for inspiration. The change was part brought about by increasingly devotional portraits to ward against the plague, and part moral indoctrination of the youth in an age of illiteracy. Some portraits, such as Bronzino’s heavily Classically-influenced Saint Sebastian, were probably private commissions whose purpose was to represent admirable or noble acts. All are deliberately dramatic, even heroic, representations designed to be remembered. Hence the starkness of the images.

the martyr is not victim. He has chosen if not always his fate then the circumstances around it

It is, inevitably, in a secular interpretation where St Sebastian begins to become a gay icon. In the 15th century aesthetic ideals of the Classical and Renaissance converged. Perhaps reflecting Hellenistic notions of homosexual love (think Patroculus and Achilles), artists began to paint the martyr as not as a bearded middle-age man but as almost adolescent in appearance. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Renaissance was a time of an emerging gay identity: Giovanni Bazzi (Il Sodoma), one of St Sebastian’s most significant painters, was on more than one occasion accused of, and never denied, sodomy. It is not that Sebastian is explicitly homosexual but that his portraiture works on multiple levels. In art the religious and secular are intertwined. Thus the saint transitions from prototype bear to the idealisation of twink.

There has long been a sadness, even tragedy, to gay culture. It was only in 1967 that homosexuality was decriminalised. Before then the crime of buggery remained a capital offence until 1861. Queer history is a story of hidden lives, double lives, often lives ruined by blatantly prejudiced laws which saw homosex as deviant or perverse. Prominent gay and bisexual men, such as Oscar Wilde, were gaoled and forced into exile. In the 20th century tens of thousands of men were imprisoned for “indecency” offences, both public and private. The recent pardon of the mathematician Alan Turing, who committed suicide after he was chemically castrated after a conviction for indecency, merely highlights the fact that his punishment was one meted out to many. Even when homosexuality’s innateness eventually became accepted, the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis reinforced a prejudice which took decades to overcome. This may seem a far cry away from today’s world of marriage equality and an acceptance of sexual diversity but, even in the most tolerant of Western cultures, mental health issues among gay men and youth are still prevalent, and remain untackled.

Yet the martyr is not victim. He has chosen if not always his fate then the circumstances around it, and he accepts it. That is how St Sebastian becomes the ultimate gay icon: he is the embodiment of beauty and the quintessential representation of tortured suppression.

same-sex encounters can have a freeing element of pretended  selves, whether it be in sex clubs or on Grindr

So when does the aesthetic become specifically homoerotic? In representations of martyrdom not only is there is a emotional divide between interior and exterior but in Sebastian’s case physically of naked flesh, there vulnerability and exposure. Images of St Sebastian nearly always show him either naked or partially unclothed; the arrows which pierce - one could almost say penetrate - his body do so cleanly and without blood. Often his martyrdom is represented without flesh wounds at all as if he dies overcome by his sheer beauty; in works such as Amico Aspertini’s Saint Sebastian, the body is not only eroticised, it is almost feminine; meanwhile Bronzino’s St Sebastian, with its tender features, has potential homosexual subtext: his suffering is important, even unavoidable, but his physical - same-sex -  perfection dominates.

There is a further link, between early Christianity and homoeroticism. It is not just the suppression of sexual desire but the secret, even alternative, identity which was inherent in both. Martyrdom is the triumphant, perhaps unconsciously welcomed, exposure of that identity. In the same sense that old school sexual activities such cottaging or cruising were more than just acts of necessity but met a need within the eroticism of risk: the fantasy of getting caught was part of the sexual thrill. The fantasy being more erotic than the actualité. The actor John Gielgud, convicted of cottaging in 1953, famously used to wear a (working-class) flat cap when cruising. There are other accounts of more everyday social transgression in queer history: middle-class men assuming proletariat identities when cruising for public sex. Even today same-sex encounters can have a freeing element of pretended selves, whether it be in sex clubs or on Grindr.

Bazzi’s St Sebastian seems to embrace his martyrdom, and almost enjoy it revelling in the exaltation of pain brought upon him. There is also a clear comparison, here and elsewhere, between Sebastian’s fate and that of Jesus. Sado-masochism is only an interpretation. Whether it - or any layers of eroticism - is intended we do not know. Gay identity is a recent phenomenon, which did not become full-fledged until the 19th century and remained on the edges of public consciousness for longer. How far later gay men queered St Sebastian we cannot know.

Whatever the answer, Sebastian’s martyrdom was not by any arrow’s penetration. He was allegedly nursed back to health by Irene of Rome, whereupon he returned to Diocletian's palace and harangued him by for his persecution of Christians. The Roman emperor had his guards beat his body until he was dead and dump it in the common sewers of Rome.

The truth is a death with less potential for erotic adventure than the artistic versions handed down. It demonstrates Sebastian’s constant capacity for reinvention, becoming a blank projection for same-sex desire in whatever form. And as ever, truth only plays a small part in notions of identity.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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