The piercing Beauty of Saint Sebastian
20th January 2021, slightly over two weeks ago, was Saint Sebastian’s name day.
The parish church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Ciminna (Luchino Visconti’s Donnafugata in The Leopard - I solemnly promise to write a dedicated article in time to come), the little Sicilian village where I grew up, published a message on the Facebook page about the newly restoration of the statue of Saint Sebastian, entirely funded by the community back in 2020, a caring enterprise of the kind Don raising awareness about the cultural significance of the preservation of the antique Beauty and forgotten treasures of our village.
In my spiritual longing for a guiding system of belief, I am not hiding anymore what could be a returning proclivity for Catholicism; scrolling through the news of the parish church, seeing Saint Sebastian restored to his XVIII century splendour impressed me deeply (this may have been a delightful Stendhal syndrome episode, ah) and led me to spend my late evening in an intoxicating mixture of childhood memories about the annual celebration events, bygone literature and musical studies, various readings on the history of the Saint and a reflection on the modern homoerotic imaginary on Saint Sebastian.
The Beauty of Saint Sebastian "pierced" me, intensely.
It is also LGBT History Month:
"I shall write something for the blog" I thought.
The life of Saint Sebastian
Sebastian was born in Narbonne (ancient Gaul) in 256 AD.
In 283, Sebastian joined the Roman under Emperor Carinus; distinguished years of service made him promoted to captain of the Praetorian Guard under Emperor Diocletian.
Sebastian had, while in service, cautiously concealed his faith.
During the persecution of the Christians, Sebastian visited the prisoners, providing them with supplies and solace; according to tradition, while visiting the twin inmates Marcus and Marcellian, Sebastian moved to conversion a large group of jailers and, surprisingly, Roman officials and the son of the local prefect.
In the year 286 Sebastian's betrayal against Roman gods was detected.
Emperor Diocletian commanded his execution; Sebastian has to be bound to a stake so that archers from Mauritania would shoot arrows at him.
The Golden Legend, account of Jacobus de Varagine, archbishop of Genoa, provides a visual description of the martyrdom:
"Diocletian had him bound to the medium of a plain and ordered to the archers that one bored him with blows of arrows.
He was covered so much with it, that he appeared to be like a hedgehog; when it was believed dead."
Miraculously, and, no doubt to the supreme irritation of Diocletian, Sebastian survived.
The widow Irene of Rome retrieved what initially expected to be the corpse of the martyr, discovering he was alive; Irene took care of Sebastian's wounds, nursing him back to full health.
Sebastian, once back to the imperial city, encountered the emperor Diocletian by a staircase; he let out a stream of invective, a raw denunciation of Christians' persecutions.
To the startling astonishment of the emperor, who believed Sebastian has been longly among the dead, followed a death sentence: Sebastian has to beaten to death with clubs, and his body tossed into the common sewer; a final death struck down Sebastian.
The pius lady Lucina late retrieved the cadaver from the sewer and buried it in the catacombs at the entrance of the cemetery of Calixtus (below the Appian Way).
Saint Sebastian's reputed remains are housed today in Rome's basilica of San Sebastiano fuori le mura.
Sebastian, an Apollonian archetype
I shall refer to a peculiar notion shared among occult circles: canonisation (as admission into sainthood) being considered as a way to continue worshipping the old gods of paganism in a newly enforced monotheistic facade, particularly after Constantine's Edict of Milan in AD 313.
Saint Sebastian seems to share remarkable similarities with Apollo, pagan god of music and poetry, also associated associated with the healing of diseases and pestilence; this comparison was appreciated especially during the Renaissance.
According to mythology, Apollo delivered communities from epidemics although he also brought deadly plagues with his arrows.
Healing is associated with Apollo, both directly and through his son Asclepius, demi-god of medicine.
Iliad, Book I: Agamemnon, king of Argos, kidnapped the daughter of Chryses, Apollo's priest. The old priest appealed to Apollo who, infuriated by such opprobrium, shoots the arrows of plague at the Greeks for nine days:
"He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them."
Only after the girl is freed and suitable offerings are made to Apollo, the pestilence comes to an end for the Greeks.
While Apollo cast the arrows of plague, Sebastian weathered them and, not dying from the them, his body resulted "immunised" from the apollonic plague.
The splendid naked and pierced body of Sebastian becomes, therefore, a prophylactic barrier against diseases.
His bare effigy warding off the plague, recalls ancient magick, where nude figures were located on cathedrals, castles, and other buildings to ward off evil spirits:
Sheela-na-gyg, found throughout British Islands, are figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva, which may have been used to ward off death, evil and demons, similarly to other grotesque carvings, such as gargoyles and hunky punks, powerful charms of apotropaic magick.
A Sheela-na-gyg project-based grand tour across the UK would be a great travelling itinerary once freedom will be back.
The art historian Anna Brownell Jameson, in her studies on sacred and legendary art, wrote:
"Saint Sebastian is the favourite saint of the Italian women, and more particularly of the Roman women. His youth, courage, and beauty of person, the interest of his story, in which the charity of woman plays such an important part, and the attentive character of the representation have led to this preference. Instances are recorded of the figure of St. Sebastian producing the same effect on an excitable southern fancy that the statue of Apollo produced on the 'Girl of Provence' - a devotion ending in passion, madness and death."
San Sebastiano in Gabriele D'Annunzio's aesthetic
The pagan imaginary attributed to the figure of Saint Sebastian seduced the wide public, from the queer artist to the most conservative representative.
The religious play "The Mystery of Saint Sebastian" (Lanlevillar, 1567), definable as a fin de siècle "Symbolist mystery play", is said to have moved Gabriele D'Annunzio, Italian writer and aesthete, to produce his own aesthetic interpretation of the tale of Saint Sebastian.
This creative enterprise resulted in an "opera d'arte totale" (the German "Gesamtkunstwerk", a work of art that makes use of all or many art forms or strives to do so), which combined four thousands lines in French written by the author, incidental music by Claude Debussy, mesmerising dances of the androgynous Ida Rubinstein.
The theme of Saint Sebastian intoxicated D'annunzio's decadent reveries extensively.
Philippe Jullian refers to Gabriele D'Annunzio's poem The Adonis (1883) as pilot presentation of the themes which would later drive Le Martyre.
"Thus died the Adolescent, in a great mystery of Pain and Beauty as imagined by my Dream and Art."
Mantegna's Saint Sebastian becomes the "Athlete of Christ".
A young D'Annunzio, following a passionate night in Villa Medici's grove with Olga Ossani, felt as being a sensual embodiment of the Saint, his naked body bruised by the wild kisses of the lover as Saint Sebastian's wounded by the arrows.
“La luna entra nei lecci…
Tolgo rapido il leggero abito estivo. La chiamo addossato a un oleandro, atteggiandomi come se vi fossi legato.
La luna bagna il mio corpo nudo, e tutte le lividure appaioni.
‘San Sebastiano’ ella grida…”
(The moon penetrates the holm oaks...
I rapidly remove the summer suit. I call her, leaning on an oleander, pretending to be tied-up. The moon floodlights my bare body, all the bruises appear.
'Saint Sebastian' she shouts...)
In a letter to his Russian (and with boyish long legs) mistress, Nathalie de Goloubeff, he conflated the Saint's corporal pain to his, even apostrophising the androgynous lover as the Saint himself:
" My suffering is like a carnal magic,
O St. Sebastian."
While "hidden" in Paris (in truth, escaping his creditors), Gabriele D’Annunzio was invited by the iconic friend Robert de Montesquiou (model for Proust's Baron de Charlus and for Huysmans' Des Esseintes) to the Paris Opera where Ida Rubinstein, Russian dancer and actress, was performing Cleopatre.
As soon as she appeared on stage, D'Annunzio said to his secretary:
"She has the legs of St. Sebastian, which I have been looking for in vain for years."
There was the greatest muse inspiration for the Italian writer; the obsessive purpose to create for Ida Rubinstein an exceptional work which such an artist deserves.
D'Annunzio immersed himself in a feverish creative phase; surrounded by the Saint's images and engravings (kind loan from Montesquieu), medievalist records on The Golden Legend from the Bibliotheque Nationale and Ida, now moved to Arcachon with the costume designer Leon Bakst, practising shooting arrows at the pine trees.
D’annunzio divided his opera d'arte totale into five acts (or mansions):
- La Cour de Lys (The Court of Lilies)
- La Chambre Magique (The Magic Chamber)
- Le Concile des Faux Dieux (The Council of the False Gods)
- Le Laurier Blessé (The Wounded Laurel)
- Le Paradis (Paradise)
As the play's text began to assume form, D'Annunzio wrote a letter to the admired Claude France, his nickname for Claude Debussy, inviting him to get involved in the production; Debussy, thrilled to accept, was immediately intrigued by the concept of producing a religious play which explicitly recalled aesthetic imaginary and decadent themes.
D’Annunzio specified that the mystery play was to have “music between one syllable and another, between one line and another”.
This type of composition is called incidental music.
Incidental music is defined as: "Music which has been written for a play.
Incidental music will be used between scenes or for particularly important moments in the play or for songs sung by the actors. It is called “incidental” because the music is not as important as the play"
As a result, Debussy's workload was enormous, with only four months before the premiere.
Prior to the premiere, Montesquiou would be quite verbose on how the mystery play was the most beautiful thing one could hear, not only in a season, but in a whole lifetime.
The press gossiped about Rubinstein and her upcoming performance.
The public foretasted the scandal: D'Annunzio, not well regarded by the Roman Church, the thematic association of the Saint with the sensual pagan Adonis, Debussy, a confessed pagan, Rubinstein, a Jewish lesbian dancer as a male Christian saint.
The first performance of the play was scheduled for May 1911 at the Théatre du Châtelet.
A week before the performance, Cardinal Amette, archbishop of Paris, wrote an edict
stating of D'Annunzio's works were already in the index of forbidden works to
Catholics, threatening with excommunication anyone who went to see the play; tickets cancellations followed thick and fast.
On Sunday, 21st May 1911, date of the Gala Performance, a plane crash killed the French War Minister, and the nation went into mourning.
The cursed play was later performed in Boston and Italy; not particularly successful, it did not enter the repertoire although, due to Debussy's music score, it has been recorded in adapted versions notably by Charles Munch (in French), Leonard Bernstein (sung in French, acted in English), and Michael Tilson Thomas (in French).
Also, even the harshest critics, praised Rubinstein’s performance: intriguing the public as an ascetic hermaphrodite, in her breastplate, she looked like Joan of Arc; in the final act, almost naked beneath the ropes that bound her, she embodied all the decadent imaginary on the sensual death.
Years later, Gabriele D'Annunzio lover and muse, his "Kore", the divine Marchesa Luisa Casati, was supposed to wear a Saint Sebastian-inspired costume to a bal masqué organised by the flamboyant dandy Comte Etienne de Beaumont; covered in light bulbs, powered by a generator under her skirt, the costume almost electrocuted her.
The Italian artist and scriptwriter Vanna Vinci describes the rather amusing scene in her historical graphic novel "La Casati: The Selfish Muse"
The Beauty of Saint Sebastian remained part of Gabriele D'Annunzio's aesthetic sensibility until the end of his life.
In the last decade of his life, while sojourning in the splendid estate today called Vittoriale degli Italiani , "gabbia dorata" (gilded cage) where Mussolini funded D'Annunzio pleasures in order to keep him away from political fascism in Rome, multiple are the visual references to Saint Sebastian.
I paid a visit to the Vittoriale degli Italiani four years ago.
I will never forget the grave "contemplative anguish" felt within once I entered the "Stanza del Lebbroso" (The Leprosus' Room).
The Leprous' Room was conceived as a meditative refuge, secluded from the world's pleasures.
The walls are covered in suede (resembling the Franciscan habit), a XVI century statue of Saint Sebastian stands by the bed, called "letto delle due età", whose structure refers to both cradle and coffin, a picture of Saint Francis of Assisi hugging a leprous symbolises the poet's awareness of being a leprous himself, a social outcast, sacred to God, deeply in need for the Saint's embrace in his final hour.
Saint Sebastian, favorite emblem of Beauty transcending suffering and death, guarded the private funeral wake of Gabriele D'Annunzio in the night between 1st and 2nd March 1938.
"Amore e Morte": Yukio Mishima, the Japanese Saint Sebastian
The penetrating Beauty of Saint Sebastian traveled far, reaching the Orient, finding a tasteful and tragic personification in Yukio Mishima.
Yukio Mishima (三島 由紀夫), born Kimitake Hiraoka, was a Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor, model, Shintoist and nationalist.
Born to an upper middle class Tokyo family, he was raised by the grandmother who satisfied his caprices for flamboyant clothing and a way of living transcending the masks of the outside world.
He got acquainted with European literature, reading authors like Oscar Wilde, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Thomas Mann, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Proust.
European literature style heavily influenced his writings, including all the decadent notions and fascination with Eros and Thanatos, "Amore e Morte", lustful love and tremendous death.
In particular, he mirrored Gabriele D'Annunzio with his political nationalism and an interest for sports and bodybuilding.
This privileged and rather isolated upbringing became the foundation for his first book, "Confessions of a Mask" (仮面の告白, Kamen no Kokuhaku).
The publishing of "Confessions of a Mask" in 1949, launched Mishima to national fame in his early twenties.
Getting acquainted with the piercing Beauty of Saint Sebastian represented a formative moment for Mishima's aesthetic sensibility: as a young man, he prompted his first ejaculation over the picture of Guido Reni's representation of the martyridom of Saint Sebastian.
The formative moment for Mishima was the famous incident that he recalls in
Confessions of a Mask, where as a young man, he experienced arousal for the first time after seeing Guido Reni’s image of the martyrdom of Sebastian.
"Confessions of a Mask" reveals this crescendo of erotic ecstasy:
"One day, taking advantage of having been kept from school by a slight cold, I got out some volumes of art reproductions, which my father had brought back as souvenirs of his foreign travels, and took them to my room, where I looked through them attentively.
I began turning a page toward the end of a volume. Suddenly there came into view from one corner of the next page a picture that I had to believe had been lying in wait there for me, for my sake.
It was a reproduction of Guido Reni's "St. Sebastian," which hangs in the collection of the Palazzo Rosso at Genoa.
The black and slightly oblique trunk of the tree of execution was seen against a Titian-like background of gloomy forest and evening sky, somber and distant.
A remarkably handsome youth was bound naked to the trunk of the tree.
His crossed hands were raised high, and the thongs binding his wrists were tied to the tree. No other bonds were visible, and the only covering for the youth's nakedness was a coarse white cloth knotted loosely about his loins.
I guessed it must be a depiction of a Christian martyrdom.
His white and matchless nudity gleams against a background of dusk.
His muscular arms, the arms of a praetorian guard accustomed to bending of bow and wielding of sword, are raised at a graceful angle, and his bound wrists are crossed directly over his head. His face is turned slightly upward and his eyes are open wide, gazing with profound tranquility upon the glory of heaven. It is not pain that hovers about his straining chest, his tense abdomen, his slightly contorted hips, but some flicker of melancholy pleasure like music. Were it not for the arrows with their shafts deeply sunk into his left armpit and right side, he would seem more a Roman athlete resting from fatigue, leaning against a dusky tree in a garden. The arrows have eaten into the tense, fragrant, youthful flesh and are about to consume his body from within with flames of supreme agony and ecstasy.
But there is no flowing blood, nor yet the host of arrows seen in other pictures of Sebastian's martyrdom. Instead, two lone arrows cast their tranquil and graceful shadows upon the smoothness of his skin, like the shadows of a bough falling upon a marble stairway. But all these interpretations and observations came later.
That day, the instant I looked upon the picture, my entire being trembled with some pagan joy. My blood soared up; my loins swelled as though in wrath. The monstrous part of me that was on the point of bursting awaited my use of it with unprecedented ardor, upbraiding me for my ignorance, panting indignantly.
My hands, completely unconsciously, began a motion they had never been taught. I felt a secret, radiant something rise swift-footed to the attack from inside me.
Suddenly it burst forth, bringing with it a blinding intoxication.
Some time passed, and then, with miserable feelings, I looked around the desk I was facing.
There were cloudy-white splashes about—on the gold-imprinted title of a textbook, on a shoulder of the ink bottle, on one corner of the dictionary.
This was my first ejaculation."
I read Mishima in my high school years, mainly intrigued by the Eastern perspective to Western Decadence.
I abandoned my rather morbid current readings for "Confessions of a Mask".
The first Japanese edition of the novel featured an illustration of a torso wrapped in loincloth pierced by swords.
Mishima carried out the Japanese translation of Gabriele D'Annunzio's "Le Martyre de saint Sébastien" and supervised the play performance in Tokyo.
In collaboration with the photographer Eikoh Hosoe, Yukio Mishima posed as a model for the 1963 infamous (someone may dare to say "pornographic") photobook “Barakei - Killed by Roses” (also known as Ordeal by Roses), imitating Guido Reni's Saint Sebastian.
The inebriating bonding of Eros and Thanatos in Mishima works and aesthetic became obsessive in his later years.
In the four-volume "Sea of Fertility" (Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, and Decay of the Angel), the guiding themes remain sadism and sensuality, the languor of self-indulgence against the higher-purpose self-sacrifice.
Now a renowned bestseller, Mishima scattered his wealth into the lustful gay scene in Tokyo.
The vanity and desire to expose his body made him the new ideal of Nipponic masculine Beauty and, in a narcissistic contemplation of the Self, his own self-idol.
He posed, again and again, as the dying Sebastian.
In the compulsive contemplation of Eros and Thanatos, Mishima recognised both tendencies as inherent to the code of the samurai; this triggered the production of a new piece of work titled "Mishima on Hagakure: The Samurai Ethic and Modern Japan", a personal reflection on samurai ethics, everyday life and spiritual salvation.
On 25th November 1970, accompanied by four members of his Tatenokai (楯の会, 楯の會 or Shield Society, a private militia in Japan dedicated to traditional Japanese values and veneration of the Emperor founded by Yukio Mishima), Mishima and his crew advanced towards the Ichigya army base in Tokyo: in what ended as a failed coup d'état, the militia denounced the loss Japan’s national spirit and the desire to restore the traditional worship of the emperor.
Mishima then committed hara-kiri (also known as Seppuku meaning “self disembowelment”) plunging a sword into his stomac.
The liutenant and 21 years old lover Masakatsu Morita had been assigned to serve as Mishima's second (kaishakunin), cutting off his head with a sword at the end of the ritual to spare him unnecessary pain. Morita proved incapable and, after three failed attempts to sever Mishima's head, Koga had to step in and complete the task.
A note was later a found over a copy of his latest novel, "The Decay of the Angel":
“Human life is limited, but I would like to live forever"
The sword tearing Mishima's stomac apart echoed the arrows piercing the handsome Sebastian, Diocletian's death warrant is perversely alike Mishima's desire to die for the emperor of Japan.
Mishima’s mother, intimately understanding the completion of this aesthetic journey, said:
“Don’t grieve for him.
For the first time in his life, he did what he wanted to do.”
A penetrating desire: Saint Sebastian as homoerotic icon
Since the 15th century, Sebastian began being pictured as a beautiful young adonis, his sinewy and pale body often not pierced, sometimes merely holding an arrow.
In a time where the female nude dominated figurative arts, Sebastian provided at last the opportunity to express a longly suffocated imaginary of male nudity, deeply sexual, profoundly homoerotic, surely justified as religious depiction, definitely hiding a new queer sensibility.
In an historical time span including XIX and XX centuries, Gabriele D'Annunzio and Yukio Mishima surely transcended any morally restrained voyeurism and exposed to the public a newly decadent Saint Sebastian, embodiment of absolute Beauty, explicitly homoerotic idol, parable of the beautiful death.
The tale of Sebastian touched the sensibility of other noteworthy authors:
Oscar Wilde always considered Reni’s Saint Sebastian the ultimate depiction of Beauty; he collected photographs of young boys emulating the Saint by the writer and photographer Frederick William Rolfe (better known as Baron Corvo) and adopted the pseudonym of Sebastian Melmoth following his release from prison (after being pleaded guilty at the trial for gross indecency with men).
Baron Corvo best-know novel, "The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole: A Romance of Modern Venice", a "scurrilous sensual fantasy, a vindication of a man who felt betrayed by his friends, and a testament to a fervent affection for the city of Venice", tells the story of the writer Nicholas Crabbe exiled in Venice and his love for a boyish girl named Zildo.
Like Wilde's Dorian Gray, personally owning medallions of Saint Sebastian, Gustav von Aschenbach martyring torments for the young Tadzio in Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice", Crabbe has a particular attachment for the image of Saint Sebastian.
The seducing Beauty of Saint Sebastian persists in modern days: his enigmatic languorous expression, his partially parted lips in supposed pleasure, the sculpted body sadomasochistically restrained in ropes make Sebastian an enduring homoerotic idol.
In 1976, Derek Jarman directed the historical film "Sebastiane", deemed as quite controversial as for the homoeroticism portrayed between the characters and for having dialogue entirely in Latin.
The martyrdom of Saint Sebastian remains a topic of representative choice even in contemporary art:
In his blog (https://reganocallaghan.com/) Ragan O'Callaghan writes:
"In 2009 I designed an icon of St Sebastian that is contemporary in style but conveying an apt message. I wanted to talk about the erotic and sexuality in faith and spirituality. Fear and ignorance though often mean such topics are not spoken about within some religious circles. It is almost as if some people have let their own hands be tied behind their backs but when they look they see there is no rope! The question is why have some people allowed themselves to be conditioned into thinking the erotic as sinful in all contexts and sexuality as having implicit religious norms? The arrows of condemnation easily hit their intended targets in this situation. Hands are wrung in despair and guilt but why? In this icon Saint Sebastian conveys all these emotions and confusions and yet thankfully he is not contained by the boundaries of religious judgement but rather steps outside its borders. He has been hurt by the transgressions of others and by his own doubts but he steps forward in faith - not as a victim but as a strong resilient human being."
A powerful message indeed.
For all the above, I would not hide my fear of being excommunicated (so drama queen) or being publicly shamed for this article on Saint Sebastian by someone from my village: I am ready!
Researching and writing this piece has been an intellectual pleasure in these tedious times, a pretext for aesthetic meditation, a learning exercise about LGBT iconography and sensibility during this dedicated month, a Jungian conversation with my masculine animus, certainly stirred, secretly aroused, by the piercing Beauty of Saint Sebastian.
I wonder, more often than usual lately, if this contemplation of Beauty and search for spirituality will result in a return to Catholicism...
When I was a child, while my peers had fun with kids-things, I was a passionate collector of images and prayers to Saints (yep, I have been a weirdo since 1995).
Part of my holy collection is the below, a prayer to Saint Sebastian:
"For your bravery,
Which made you endure the painful arrows wounding your body while keeping you miraculously alive,
Then moved from the gallows by the pious widow Irene, consequence of reprimanding the cruel Diocletian for his injustices and impiety,
Pray for us all, oh glorious martyr Sebastian,
Teach us to always accept with joy any malady, persecutions and afflictions in this miserable life,
Allowing us to be part, one day, to your glory in Paradise, after embodying your suffering on earth."