The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian

“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.

Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”

Last words of St. Sebastian, martyr died C 288

     Saint Sebastian lived in the Roman Empire from AD 255-288.  He is the patron saint of athletes, soldiers, martyrs, plague victims, and more recently, LGBTQIA+ people. Historical accounts of Sebastian document him as a Roman soldier and a Christian who convinced others to convert in the face of persecution at the hands of Emperor Diocletian.  Saint Sebastian has been represented in many works including sculptures and paintings, most often depicted bound to a pillar and pierced with arrows.  This depiction is based on the attempted execution of Saint Sebastian by archers, from which he was rescued and recovered.  In this project, we will recreate this image of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian in my preferred medium of embroidery, which allows us to focus on the body of Saint Sebastian.

     Saint Sebastian’s areas of patronage are based on stories from his life, documented in historical sources including “Chronograph of 354” and “Passio Sancti Sebastiani”.  Sebastian joined the Roman army in 283 AD to assist Christian martyrs.  He concealed his faith and was eventually promoted to the Praetoria Guard, the   His death came at the hands of Emperor Diocletian who succeeded Emperor Carinus and restarted the persecution of Christians.  Saint Sebastian was outed as a Christian when a set of twin brothers who refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods were caught and arrested.  When their parents were unable to convince the brothers to give up their Christian faith, Saint Sebastian convinced them to convert to Christianity as well.  This was only one of the conversion stories included in the tales of Saint Sebastian.

     The first attempt at execution involved Saint Sebastian being bound to a stake and fired upon by archers after Diocletian discovered he was a Christian.  His body was described as, “Full of arrows as an urchin”. (Voragine 1993)  This is the scene typically depicted by artists.  Sebastian survived the attempt and was taken and cared for by Irene of Rome. After his recovery, he went back to Emperor Diocletian to berate him for his persecution of Christians.  Emperor Diocletian again ordered Sebastian to be killed and this time he was beaten to death and thrown into the sewer.

     Saint Sebastian’s establishment as the patron saint of martyrs is clear from his historical double martyrdom and ability to convert others to Christianity even under threat of potential execution.  His relationship with the plague-stricken is a bit more tenuous.  The Black Death was running rampant in Italy in 1347 and 1348 and again in 1576, and 1629 to 1631.  (Roos 2020)  The Black Death was believed to be transmitted through the air and was represented in Medieval paintings as black arrows. 

     An illustrated manuscript from the 14th century details demons shooting black arrows at plague victims and it is interpreted as punishment for their sins. (Kasriel 2020)  Plague is a punishment from God as seen in the Old Testament as one of the punishments enacted on the Egyptians for oppressing the enslaved Israelites.  Sebastian being shot through with arrows and surviving has been turned into a symbol of survival and being a chosen person by God. 

     The connection to the LGBTQIA+ community comes through a couple of channels.  Oscar Wilde adopted the pen name Sebastian after seeing Guido Reni’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (see Figure 2).  This image and others of Saint Sebastian include Saint Sebastian gazing upward to the sky in adoration or the ecstasy of pain.  As a soldier, he is represented as being in good physical shape.  The vision of ecstasy and longing or gazing toward heaven, and the binding of hands and feet also evokes BDSM culture (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism) where the aspects of control and submission can evoke ecstasy.

     At the time these paintings were created, the human body was being rediscovered and artists were using paintings to study the body’s musculature.  Saint Sebastian was often depicted as handsome and in good physical shape.  The position of Saint Sebastian’s body in all three figures creates an “S” shape starting with Saint Sebastian’s eye line toward the heavens, following the line we see the curve of the head and neck down through the chest and stomach and the bottom of the lower curve can be traced through his legs.  This was both a way to show off the musculature as well as creating an intricate angling of the body to show an overall concept of form. 

     The arrows piercing the body differ from one image to another in terms of location and quantity.  The arrows create additional lines that draw attention to the anatomy of the body in another way.  In the art created for this project (see Figure 3) the arrows are replaced with needles through the cloth and are based on the placement of arrows in Mantegna’s piece (see Figure 1).  They draw attention to different areas of the anatomy of Saint Sebastian, including the neck, forehead, and chest where the heart was believed to be, ribs, lungs, upper abdomen, lower abdomen, thighs, and shin.

  The arrows also draw attention to other parts of the painting as well.  Mantegna highlights additional styles of art, including classical architectural elements such as columns, arches, Greek and Roman style sculpture, roads, and constructed walls.  There is an intentional decay including cracks in the architecture, missing sections of the arch, and rubble on the ground. This was included intentionally to note the decay of the Roman Empire. (Dr. Beth Harris n.d.)  I also find this interesting through the lens of the AIDS Epidemic.  The systems in place including the public health system and the U.S. government failed to support the gay men and transgender women who were the main minorities affected by the epidemic.  The AIDS Epidemic was treated similarly to the Black Death in that Conservative Christians treated the Epidemic similarly to the plague, as if it was the wrath of God punishing people for being queer. 

     The structures are still not in place to properly support queer people and have become another battleground with Conservative Christians attacking transgender health resources.  One reason I chose to work on this particular image is because of the current assault on transgender care for youth and adults.  As a transgender person who is out and encourages others in their transition, I do feel that elder queer men and transgender women have been and continue to be martyrs on the way to equality and justice.


Betancourt, Roland. 2020. Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender and Race in the Middle Ages. Princeton University Press.

Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. n.d. Mantegna, Saint Sebastian. Smarthistory. Accessed 03 23, 2023. https://youtu.be/wIbpSJdSz90.

Dunlop, Anne. 2016. Young Men with Arrows and the Blaffer ‘Saint Sebastian’. Houston: Yale University Press.

Kasriel, Emily. 2020. How have artists portrayed epidemics over the centuries – and what can the artworks tell us about then and now? Emily Kasriel explores the art of plague from the Black Death to current times. May 18. Accessed April 16, 2023. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20200514-how-art-has-depicted-plagues.

Mantegna, Andrea. 1456–1459. St. Sebastian. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Marks, Hannah. 2017. “The Transference of Apollonian Iconography to Images of Saint Sebastian in Italian Renaissance Art.” University of Glasgow.

Mathews, Thomas F. 1993. The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art. Princeton University Press.

Roos, Dave. 2020. How One 17th-Century Italian City Fended Off the Plague. April 3. Accessed April 16, 2023. https://www.history.com/news/plague-italy-public-health-ferrara.

Voragine, Jacobus de. 1993. The Golden Legend: Volume II. Princeton University Press.

Figure 1. St. Sebastian (Vienna: Andrea Mantegna, 1456-1459)

Figure 2. The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (Genoa: Guido Reni, 1615)

Figure 3. The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (Duluth, MN: Root Holden, 2023)

AT1001: History of Arts and Theology

Spring 2023

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