The queering of St.Sebastian: Renaissance iconography and the homoerotic body

Clinton Glenn

The figure of Saint Sebastian is a common trope in art since antiquity. The Saint usually appears tied to a tree, his body penetrated by numerous arrows. However, when looking at the various depictions of the Saint, a shift in how Sebastian is depicted can be seen in early fifteenth century Italy. His depiction shifts from one of an older man with a bearded face to an adolescent boy. This figuration of the erotic body of Sebastian has taken on numerous meanings since the Italian Renaissance. Baroque artists Caravaggio and Guido Reni portrayed Sebastian as a homoerotic figure, while contemporary artist David Wojnarowicz played with the idea of Sebastian as a homosexual martyr in the face of the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the 1980s. But how did Sebastian go from an early Christian martyr to the so-called “patron saint of gay men?”1 This paper will examine the dramatic shift that occurred in the depiction of Sebastian in the Italian Renaissance. What becomes clear is that there are multitudes of ways in which his figurative and material body can be read. While Sebastian can be seen through a religious iconographical lens, the “[homoerotic] subtext—especially in the eye of the informed, queer beholder—transforms the religious into a source of masculine desire.”2 It is these divergent accounts of Sebastian that lead one to question how Sebastian can be viewed within a Renaissance context: as a homoerotic icon, as a religious icon, or potentially as both. It is the tension between the public, religious reading, and the private, erotic reading that is fertile ground for discussion.

A public reading of Saint Sebastian in the Italian Renaissance can be located in three different functions of paintings of the saints: one, in their didactic function of communicating the life of the saint to the illiterate lower classes; two, in the depiction of Saint Sebastian as an adolescent, which had the function of indoctrinating the young men of Florence into a specific moral framework; and three, as a devotional portrait which people would have kept as a ward against the plague. A private reading, on the other hand, can be elucidated from the social context in which many of the Sebastian paintings were created paintings, the covert homoeroticism in the way his half-naked body is depicted, and in the symbolism of the arrows penetrating his body. While this paper will not argue for a depiction of Sebastian as explicitly homosexual, the goal is to provide a nuanced examination of how the symbolic representation of Sebastian can work on multiple levels: religious and secular, sexual and devotional. But what makes Sebastian specifically well suited to such encoded meanings? Many of the details of the Saint’s life are unclear, and these contradictions could perhaps have fed into his various interpretations.

What most scholars have agreed upon is that Sebastian was a guard in Emperor Diocletian’s army in the third century. He was said to have converted to Christianity and preached to other soldiers covertly through his position in the army. After destroying numerous pagan idols, Diocletian ordered Sebastian to be tied to a tree and shot through with arrows. This is the common representation of Sebastian. He was left to die, but through the intervention of Saint Irene, Sebastian was nursed back to health. He later reappeared on Diocletian’s doorstep and the emperor, filled with rage at Sebastian’s defiance, had him clubbed to death and tossed in the sewers of Rome.3 The general trajectory of Sebastian’s life seems to be consistent throughout most versions of his story. However, another version of Sebastian’s relationship with Diocletian has circulated. Religious scholar Dr. Donald Boisvert has pointed to a version of the Sebastian narrative in which he was the “play-thing” of Diocletian.4 This narrative appears to have transformed itself into a coded signifier of “Diocletian’s love for his favourite and [they] were proverbial for homosexual affairs.”5 These rich layers of meaning in both versions of the Sebastian story, of the public martyr and the private homosexual lend the Saint to a variety of depictions and multiple interpretations.

Public portraits of saints created during the Italian Renaissance served very specific, public functions. Art historian Michael Baxandall points out that these images had a didactic function that worked on three levels. They were to be simple enough to understand, dramatic enough to be remembered, and emotionally charged so that those viewing them could have a fuller sense of the message the image was to convey.6 Many people during this time were illiterate, and “what they knew of scripture and the lives of the saints was what they heard from priests, parents, wandering preachers [and] storytellers.” These paintings were far more accessible to the common people than words they could not read.7 So it is possible that many of the Saint Sebastian portraits created during this period were public representations of religious piety and the heroic life and death of the martyr. A key example would be Giovanni del Biondo’s altarpiece from the late 14th century. In contrast, wealthy patrons commissioned many other portraits of Sebastian. Bronzino’s Saint Sebastian by comparison, was most likely created as such a private commission.8 Most notably, these commissions were for a wealthy elite and represented their desire to surround themselves with heroic and noble figures from the past. The elite were actively engaged in a Humanist discourse with classical forms of knowledge, and a figure from antiquity such as Saint Sebastian would have fallen well within this discourse. It is in this classicism that a more private reading of the body of the Saint can be found.

The Italian Renaissance itself was marked by a turn to classical texts and forms. Humanism as expounded by the elite “looked to ancient Greece and Rome for models of good politics and culture.”9 Artists themselves were expected to communicate with and learn from writers, poets, philosophers, and the wealthy classes. It was in this dialogue that they gained the knowledge by which they would compose their portraits. Leon Battista Alberti compelled artists to associate themselves with intellectuals, such as poets and philosophers: “each painter should make himself familiar with poets, rhetoricians and others equally well learned in letters.”10 Along with this interest in classical ideals that was part-and-parcel of Renaissance Humanism came a re-discovery of Greek pederasty.11 This notion of pederastic love extended to the studios of many Renaissance painters. A number of the more famous artists of the period were at one point accused of sodomy, many with their young apprentices. Modern art historians have characterized these individuals as an early formation of a homosexual identity.12 Whether this is a simple re-working of history and anachronistically applying a contemporary identity label is a matter of debate. Given that the workshop spaces in which many of these portraits were created permeated with erotic energies, it stands to reason that this energy found its way into the homoerotic portrayal of Saint Sebastian.13 These youthful depictions of Saint Sebastian could potentially be seen as representative of the erotic desires of the artists themselves.

Giovanni Bazzi, also known as Il Sodoma, was a key figure that portrayed a youthful Sebastian as a half-naked young boy. Il Sodoma was accused on a number of occasions, of engaging in sodomy with his young apprentices, and unlike many of his contemporaries who were accused, Il Sodoma never denied engaging in sodomy.14 When looking at two different versions of Sebastian he created, one can see that there is much more of a focus on the eroticized body.15 Whereas earlier representations of Sebastian depict the Saint’s body as perforated by arrows, these focus more on the tenderness of his body, his genitals barely covered. While Il Sodoma worked in Siena, other examples from around the Italian peninsula followed this [one]. Both Perugino’s Saint Sebastian and Amico Aspertini’s Saint Sebastian are similar in content to Il Sodoma’s work, eroticizing and feminizing the body of the Saint. In contrast, an earlier depiction of Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna has a much more masculine appearance, though the erotic potential for certain viewers could not be denied. Unlike Il Sodoma, little evidence exists to suggest that either Perugino or Aspertini, engaged in homosexual activity. Bronzino, however, was reputed to have layered his works with homoerotic subtext.16 Given the delicate features of his depiction of Saint Sebastian, a homoerotic reading is possible. The adolescent depiction of Sebastian along with the evidence of same-sex homoeroticism in the lives of many artists during this period lends credence to a sexual subtext to these images. It stands to serve that the physical representation of Sebastian can thus be read through a homoerotic lens.

Despite the explicit homoerotic potential in the Sebastian paintings, the consistent depiction of Saint Sebastian as an adolescent child could potentially have served a much more potent public function in the context of Florence. Art Historian Christopher Fulton states that this had more to do with the social function that this played than any specific eroticized intent. The depiction of Sebastian as an adolescent fell under common representation of “idealized youth,” one which had the effect of indoctrinating the young men of Florence, creating in them one “who would make a worthy heir, a trustworthy citizen, and who as an adult could lead the city into a future of material and spiritual well-being.”17 By using classical figures that are directly related to ideals of heroism, martyrdom, and solidity in the face of mortality, the adolescent boys who would see these images could potentially be compelled to be upright, participatory Florentine citizens in their adulthood. While there may have been prescriptive ideals inherent in the social functioning of these objects, this neglects the artist’s own erotic impulses being integrated within the work. While agreeing with Fulton’s perception of these images as “[reflecting] an ideal—repeated in the texts of this era—of Florentine youth as properly deferential to adult authority,” art historian Christopher Reed also opens up an analytical space for the possibility that these images could have erotic potential.18

However, given that this patriarchal reading of the adolescent Sebastian is firmly grounded in Florence while the proliferation of youthful imaginings of the saint were created throughout peninsular Italy, another public reading is possible. In depicting Saint Sebastian as a youthful, beautiful figure, he could potentially be seen as both transcendent and material, simultaneously in pain and an example of “the ultimate resilience of bodies devoted to good works.”19 The beautiful body served as an example of the heroic martyr, one that the viewer could take comfort in. During the Middle Ages, Saint Sebastian took on the role as a patron saint to plague victims.20 By keeping a portrait of Saint Sebastian in a public or private place, an individual could pray to the portrait, hoping to avoid the ravages of the plague that had attacked much of Europe; the image would act “as a supplicant and intercessor.”21 Boisvert alludes to the penetration of the arrows in Sebastian’s body and how they mirrored the wounds of the flesh of plague victims as a mirror for the victim’s suffering.22 Therefore, the representation of the arrows in the Saint’s flesh would be key to this reading. However, many of the later fifteenth century depictions of Sebastian are characteristic of the few arrows that penetrate his flesh. The focus, therefore, could be seen as shifting from his ecstatic suffering to his erotic flesh.23

The arrows shown penetrating Sebastian’s body also carry the potential symbolism of phallic penetration. Art historian Janet Cox-Rearick makes this explicit in her reading of Bronzino’s depiction of the Saint: “one [arrow] has penetrated his body, the other is casually, but suggestively, held against the pink drapery, the saint’s index finger curved around and almost touching the arrowhead.”24 This placement of the arrow, directly in the Saint’s tender hand, makes explicit a highly erotic potential. In contrast, other art historians have read Il Sodoma’s Saint Sebastian portraits as representative of his own life and the subsequent critical reaction, most notably by Giorgio Vasari, for his personal indiscretions with his young assistants. James Saslow picks up on this possibility, reading Saint Sebastian as a stand-in for Il Sodoma, “he writhes in an ecstasy of helpless suffering for love open to multiple personal interpretations, from sadomasochistic fantasies to the artist’s veiled comment on his own public ‘martyrdom’.”25 However, the fact remains that this reading of Saint Sebastian has been anachronistically applied to his body. While contemporary art historians and critics may clearly see the arrows as representing the phallus, there is little evidence to suggest that this was the intention of the artists themselves. And though we may speculate about the use of Saint Sebastian as a homoerotic metaphor, “Sebastian in many ways had his homoerotic meaning foisted on him.”26 The contemporary viewer can look at the Saint through multiple levels of meaning, each fraught with the possibility of unintentional ahistoricism.

When looking at these public and private readings, it is difficult to determine the “correct” justification for how Sebastian was meant to be read. The public functions of portraits of Sebastian are well documented and certainly hold up to scrutiny. However, this is not to say that examinations of the aesthetics in which the Saint was portrayed cannot be scrutinized. Art Historian Christopher Reed points out a critical flaw in contemporary art historical discourse, the belief that there is a transcendental aesthetics that can be used to access art from any time period and see it “as fundamentally like our own ‘art’ and, therefore, accessible to our habits of visual analysis and delight.”27 While we can look at a Renaissance portrait and attempt to access its aesthetic potential for those living in the period, invariably our own contemporary sensibilities and referential points of comparison will play into the way we analyze these works.

This does not deny the potential private readings of Sebastian as an object of homoerotic desire. The problem comes down to a perception of what such desire represented. Many art historians engaged in gay and lesbian critiques of the art historical canon have a tendency to anachronistically label artists as homosexual or gay. Both James Saslow and James Smalls, art historians who have written extensively on the relationship between homosexuality and art, tend to conflate sexual identity with desire. While perhaps those who had same-sex desires during the Renaissance would have engaged with Saint Sebastian as a figure of homoerotic yearning, to label these artists as gay or homosexual would be to deny their own subjectivity. Despite this, a wealth of evidence does exist of the private, erotic lives of many artists. While it may be true that there are serious concerns when writing today about the “wildly varying interpretations of Renaissance art’s relationship to homosexuality,”28 what remains to be said is that challenges to a dominant narrative in art history, be it from a homosexual perspective, produce alternate readings of art that are just as valid as the prevailing discourse. What many contemporary gay art historians are engaging in, is an uncovering of various formations of same-sex desire and the artistic representation of these relations. Whether we label an artist as gay, a pederast, or a sodomite, could perhaps come down to a matter of semantics. What is important is that a space within art history be provided, one in which the artist can be examined in relations to their own private desires, and one in which Saint Sebastian could be read through covert homoerotic encodings.

Endnotes

1. Robert Kiely, Blessed and Beautiful: Picturing the Saints (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 11.
2. Donald L. Boisvert, Sanctity and Male Desire: A Gay Reading of the Saints (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 2004), 46.
3. Kiely, Blessed and Beautiful, 119-120.
4. Boisvert, Sanctity and Male Desire, 44-46.
5. James Saslow, Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts (New York: Viking, 1999), 99. James Saslow expands further upon the potential for an erotic reading of Sebastian in a story told by Giorgio Vasari. It is said that a portrait of Saint Sebastian painted by Fra Bartolommeo was so erotically charged that “parishioners admitted in the confessional that the beautiful nude prompted unclean thoughts.” The paintings was then moved to the male quarters of the priests, where it was presumed that the image would not provoke a similar reaction. Saslow clearly disagrees with such a supposition..
6. Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 40-43.
Baxandall provides a fuller explanation on how these rules were disseminated along with the artistic licence that some painters took when depiction religious, which raised the ire of ecclesiastical authorities.
7. Kiely, Blessed and Beautiful, 3-4.
8. Janet Cox-Rearick, “A ‘St Sebastian’ by Bronzino,” in The Burlington Magazine 129.1008 (1987), 160.
9.Paula Findlen, “Understanding the Italian Renaissance,” in The Italian Renaissance: The Essential Readings, ed. Paula Findlen (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 6.
10. Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, trans. J.R. Spencer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 91.
11. Cecile Beurdeley, L’amour Bleu, trans. by Michael Taylor (Fribourg, Switzerland: Evergreen, 1994), 11. Cecile Beurdeley described the Greek form of pederasty as “love relationships with adolescent boys. Xenophon considered it an aspect of a young man’s education: the lover set an example of moral rectitude and inculcated patriotism and respect for the laws in his young friend.”
12. James Smalls, Homosexuality in Art (London: Parkstone, 2002), 73.
13. James Saslow, Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 15-16. James Saslow takes up this point: “Shorn of judgmental intrusions, acknowledgement of an artist’s personal life and examination of his relation to his social context can reveal much of value about the meaning of works of art and the values and beliefs of the surrounding culture.” While a work can be isolated and viewed simply by what it presents, it is also important to bear in mind that an artist’s own desires could be interpreted in how a subject is depicted.
14. Christopher Reed, Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011), 45-49; Saslow, Ganymede in the Renaissance, 13-14. Both Christopher Reed and James Saslow touch on the various rumours surrounding Il Sodoma and his contemporaries. As Reed points out, “Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Painters (1550), considered the first book of art history, reports that Sodoma’s nickname derived from his ‘licentious and dishonorable’ behavior: ‘he always had boys and beardless youths about him, of whom he was inordinately fond’”. Saslow notes both Da Vinci and Michelangelo were variously accused of sodomy, but unlike their contemporary, they stridently defended their innocence.
15. Beurdeley, L’Amour Bleu, 84. Cecile Beurdeley further explicates this reading of Il Sodoma’s Sebastian portraits: “In Sodoma’s version he appears as an updated hermaphrodite with ringleted hair and sweetly languorous limbs. The fleshier Saint Sebastians make one think of sensual pleasures, of a delicious pain, rather than the rigors of torture.”
16. William McGregor, “Bronzino, Agnolo (1503-1572),” in Gay Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia, ed. George E. Haggerty (New York: Garland, 2000), 144-145. Many of Bronzino’s other works, including the portrait of Andrea Doria as Neptune, have lent themselves to homoerotic readings. His nickname, Bronzino, has also “been suspected of encoding homosexual allusion, given that il bronzo was an alloy of copper and tin, elements that together in the burlesque code signified ‘anus.’”
17. Christopher Fulton, “The Boy Stripped Bare By His Elders: Art and Adolescence in Renaissance Florence” Art Journal 56.2 (1997): 33-37. Fulton further expands upon this point, bringing in Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of the mirror stage: “the adolescent spectator is directed to admire the virtues exemplified by the figure while projecting his own self-image onto the model.” In doing so, the youth sees himself in the virtuous figure and becomes intimately linked with the ideals they espouse.
18. Reed, Art and Homosexuality, 50.
19. Kiely, Blessed and Beautiful, 138.
20. Kiely, Blessed and Beautiful, 120. Robert Kiely links this perception of Sebastian to the Annals of the Lombards: “Sebastian is reported to have been efficacious in healing those suffering from the plague and over time he became revered as the patron saint of plague victims and soldiers.”
21.  Cox-Rearick, “A ‘St Sebastian’ by Bronzino,” 159.
22. Boisvert, Sanctity and Male Desire, 43-45. Donald Boisvert further explores perception of why Sebastian was considered the patron saint of plague victims: “the symbolism of arrows was linked to the widespread imagery of the plague ‘piercing’ individuals as punishment from God.”
23.  Richard A. Kaye, “St. Sebastian: The Uses of Decadence.” in Saint Sebastian: A Splendid Readiness for Death, ed. Gerald Matt and Wolfgang Fetz (Bielefeld, Germany: Kunsthalle Wien, 2003), 12.
24.  Cox-Rearick, “A ‘St. Sebastian’ by Bronzino”, 160-161.
25. Saslow, Pictures and Passions, 99.
26. Kaye, “St. Sebastian,”12. Kaye does, however, agree with many critics who have viewed the homoerotic potential of Sebastian. His introduction to a German exhibition of contemporary art featuring the Saint, Saint Sebastian: A Splendid Readiness for Death, sheds further light on these contemporary interpretations.
27. Reed, Art and Homosexuality, 3.
28. Ibid, 47.