“Who Dat Saint?” St. Sebastian
I love being Protestant but there are certain things about me that make me wish I was Catholic. I love overly ornate churches and religious pomp. I enjoy the feeling of a rosary in my hands. Men in tall, funny hats always put a smile on my face. I already confess everything anyway; how hard would it be to say it to a priest? Plus, nothing beats a good saint story. And from a strictly artistic standpoint, Christian saints/martyrs are easily identifiable, thereby making my life easier when I had to take a test on Renaissance artworks. So I have started a new series that I am calling: “Who dat Saint?” (No disrespect to the wonderful people of New Orleans as I adopt their football team’s catchphrase. I love everything about your town, including the confessing I need to do after visiting it.)
St. Sebastian is one of the most visually identifiable of the saints, because he looks like Katniss (or Cupid for you classicists) got a few rounds into him. How does one get onself tied to a tree with archers shooting arrows at one’s body? Sebastian pissed off the wrong people.
Sebastian was from a region in Southern France/ Northern Italy but educated in Milan. As a prefect in the Roman military, Sebastian was forced to keep his Christianity a secret. One day, a couple of brothers who were deacons in the church were arrested for not sacrificing to the Roman gods. When their parents came to visit them in prison, they asked their boys to denounce their Christianity. Their sons refused. Sebastian, apparently loving a challenge, managed to convert the parents to Christianity. His other converts included a mute girl, who upon becoming Christian could suddenly speak.
And as we all know, the Romans just loved people going around and converting Roman citizens to Christianity. So Sebastian was arrested and tied to a tree, where archers shot arrows at him. (Iconic motif alert: see some dude tied to a tree with arrows in a painting? St. Sebastian.) I presume they left him tied to a tree. St. Irene of Rome, a woman whose husband had also been killed by the Romans for being a Christian, came to take care of Sebastian’s body. Irene quickly found out that Sebastian was merely skewered and not dead so she nursed him back to health. As he continued healing at Irene’s house, visitors came and doubted that he was a Christian. One little snarky blind girl questioned his faith, so Sebastian asked her “Do you wish to be with God?” When she replied yes, he stabbed her to death so she could meet her maker. Okay, he didn’t do that, but reportedly he made the sign of the cross on her head and she was able to see again. I bet she kept her smart-ass mouth shut after that.
Once the Romans found out that Sebastian wasn’t dead, they were pissed. Because if there is one thing the Romans liked doing right, it was killing people the first time (see: Christ). Sebastian, in a bit of early Christian confidence, then went on to find Diocletian, the Roman emperor who sentenced him to death the first time, and proceeded to lecture him. Diocletian, apparently having missed the whole “have them beheaded and bring the head to me” class given to multiple emperors, ordered St. Sebastian to be beaten to death. Sebastian did die that time, but he appeared to a Christian widow in a dream and told her where to find his body. When she retrieved it, surprise! It was undefiled and was able to be put in the catacombs near the apostles. His body today can be found in the Basilica Apostolorum in Rome, but if it’s his cranium you are interested in, you will need to head to a Benedictine abbey in Ebersberg, Germany.
St. Sebastian is the patron saint of soldiers, the plague stricken, athletes, and archers (nice irony, Catholic church). What he should be the patron saint of– zombies, comebacks, and snarky little girls.
St. Sebastian in art: