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Saint Sebastian: An Enduring Homoerotic Icon

Figure 1. Andrea Mantegna, Saint Sebastian, 1480.

Part One: Saint Sebastian in the Renaissance

Of the plague’s symptoms, a contemporary chronicler called Le Baker wrote that victims were ‘afflicted by swellings which appeared suddenly in various parts of the body … Others had small black blisters scattered over the whole body.’ The swellings were buboes found in the groin, armpits and neck, from which bubonic plague gets its name. Severe headache, violent chest pains, swelling of the tongue, and subcutaneous haemorrhages were other outstanding symptoms. The sufferer often became distracted and staggered about, and if the attack was fatal would normally die within three days.1 ‘SANCTE SEBASTIANE INTERCEDE PRO DEVOTO POPULO TUO’2

A Plague on All Your Houses

The Wordsworth Encyclopedia of Plague & Pestilence, Editor, George C. Kohn, Wordsworth, 1998, p.252 ‘Saint Sebastian intercede for your devoted people’ - inscribed on Benozzo Gozzoli’s fresco painting, Saint Sebastian protecting the people of San Gimignano (1464), S. Agostino, San Gimingnano. (fig. 3)

From the seventh-century, Saint Sebastian was invoked against the bubonic plague. It was believed that the disease travelled through the air, as swift and random as deadly arrows. Given his legend, it was natural to nominate him an agent of intercession. In The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, written around 1260, Jacopo da Voragine tells us that ‘during the reign of King Gumbert3 all Italy was stricken by a plague so virulent that there was hardly anyone left to bury the dead, and this plague raged most of all in Rome and Pavia.’4 It was divinely revealed that the plague would never cease until an altar was erected to Saint Sebastian in Pavia. This directive was duly followed and an altar was raised there, in the church of St Peter. Miraculously, the plague abated and this signalled the setting up of shrines and even churches devoted to the saint across Italy and beyond. People began to appeal to Sebastian during each outbreak of plague, but also for epilepsy and other diseases too, which, in any case, were rarely distinguished by the common people. There are several churches that still house relics purported to be of Sebastian; the basilica San Sebastiano fuori le mura in Rome, for instance, holds one of the arrows that penetrated his body as well as part of the column to which he was bound; and the church of St Benedict, in Vodnjan, Croatia, along with several mummies and the remains of 250 other saints, boasts part of Sebastian’s spine, his entire pelvis and his right hip bone, still with some dried fleshy material attached.5 Sebastian was born at Gallia Narbonensis, in what is now Provence, but he was brought up in Milan by his Milanese parents. He became a soldier in the Roman army in Rome around 283 and was later made a captain in the praetorian guards by Emperor Diocletian6. When his Christianity could no longer be ignored, De Voragine, in an unintentionally humorous passage, tells us that Diocletian ‘commanded him to be led to the field and there to be bounden to a stake for to be shot at. And the archers shot at him till he was as full of arrows as an urchin is full of pricks’.7 Left for dead, he was nursed by Irene, the wife of Castulus.8 Miraculously he recovered and, a mere couple of days later, turned up at the imperial palace in Rome, where he harangued Diocletian about his cruel treatment of Christians. Whereupon, the enraged emperor ordered that Sebastian be clubbed to death; as a final insult, the body was thrown into the Cloaca Maxima, Rome’s main sewer, in the vain hope that such a filthy, ignominious end would preclude
In fact, Gumbert (sometimes spelt Gumpert) was a mere prince of Lombardia; he was never a king. Jacobus De Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints Volume 1, Trans. William Granger Ryan, Princeton University, 1995. 5 However, as these remains were presented to the church in 1818 by a painter, named Grezel, their provenance has to be questioned. 6 Diocletian was Roman Emperor 284 AD – 305 AD. He shared the position with Maximian from 286 AD. 7 De Voragine, p.100. ‘Urchin’ is the folk-name sometimes given to the hedgehog. In some American translations, the passage is written, ‘as full of arrows as a porcupine is full of pricks’, which makes no sense, given the continent on which the action takes place. 8 Castulus was the chamberlain or valet of Diocletian. Also a Christian, he was elevated to sainthood after being tortured and buried alive in a sandpit on the Via Labicana.
4 3

Sebastian’s elevation to martyr status. Ironically, Sebastian is the patron saint of both infantrymen and archers. In The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, David Freedberg speaks of the viewer’s need to believe that human images, in painting or sculpture, say, (and this is also particularly the case in photography) are reality. Once we have invested an image with life, we respond to it accordingly, as if it were real; it is no longer a signifier, but the living signified itself. Moreover, ‘once the body is perceived as real and living, we are also capable of being roused by it’ [my italics].9 This was as true of contemporary responses to images of Sebastian as it was of other saints and of Christ himself; the humanity of these figures – pictured suspended between earth and heaven – is magnified by contrast to its impending transcendence. Viewers needed to personally identify with the humanity of Sebastian (and Christ), in all his base, even sexual, humanness. Only then could they begin to imagine the possibility of his (and by association their own) eventual transubstantiation. ‘Images depicting the martyrdom of St Sebastian are especially striking in … transforming the saint explicitly into exhibited, eroticised flesh.’10 [W]hen the Florentine painter Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517) created an image of St
Sebastian to prove that he, a practicing Dominican friar, could master the nude figure as well as any artist, the result had to be removed from the church where it was first exposed. Female viewers were coming to the confessional, as Vasari11 puts it, ‘having sinned [peccato] at the very sight of the allure and suggestive realism given to the figure by Fra Bartolommeo.12

In Memoirs of a Tourist, Stendhal writes that women fainted in front of Roman altarpieces which depicted the saint. However, this cannot be so, as there were no Sebastians on Roman altars. Sebastian was, of course, first and foremost a man and it was important for viewers of his image, within churches and at altars, to be reminded of that fact. He is also a saint, and his image needed to show this, too. And it is at this point, in the uneasy connection between the sacred and the profane, that he achieves his perennial iconic status, one which will allow future artists to adapt his meaning to fit any number of agendas. More than any other Christian image, Sebastian maintains an enduring homoerotic appeal. Apart from images of Christ, there were few other opportunities for artists, whether they were samesex attracted or not, to depict semi-nude male figures. And just as images of Christ varied over time, so did Sebastian mutate to fit the current preoccupations of any given period: in medieval times he appeared simply as an intercessor
9 David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, Chicago University Press, p.325 10 Robert Mills, Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure and Punishment in Medieval Culture, Reaktion Books, 2005, p.166 11 Giorgio Vasari was an artist, art historian and critic (1511 – 1574). In 1550 he published, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects , which was dedicated to Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici.

Nigel Spivey, in the chapter ‘Vasari and the Pangs of St Sebastian’, Enduring Creation: Art, Pain and Fortitude, Thames and Hudson, p.99


against plague; in the Renaissance he transformed into a depilated youth of Apollonian beauty; in the nineteenth century he was co-opted as an androgynous decadent and since the twentieth century, he has become a gay emblem which speaks of homosexual desire while simultaneously demonstrating the agony of the closet. Recent queer theory has challenged heteronormative assumptions regarding the reading of historic imagery. Robert Mills, for instance, writing about homoerotic imagery in art from the Middle Ages, advocates ‘interpretive encounters that endeavour to challenge the heteronormative assumptions of certain modes of historical enquiry.’13 ‘Visual images of the tortured body of Christ and the saints, for instance, may produce their own queer possibilities in certain situations.’14 He goes on to propose that we:
ask not, ‘To what extent does Christian representation self-consciously depend on a homoerotic subtext?’…but, ‘How might queer subjects have deployed potentially homoerotic Christian imagery to their own perversely libidinous ends?’15

As I will show later in this chapter, erotic connections were frequently made, in the minds of the general populace, between sacred and profane imagery. It was a problem that was recognised and commented on by the clergy. From the Renaissance on, Sebastian is most often depicted tied to a tree, sometimes by one arm, gazing heavenward as his flesh is pierced by arrows, which may number from just a couple to many dozen, depending on the artist’s enthusiasm; his body is made porous and ‘feminised’ by the experience. His receptivity to this penetration also has obvious associations with male homosexuality. Before 1400, he mostly appears as an older, bearded man, which is closer to the actual historical figure (fig.3). Two waves of bubonic plague later, and his representation begins to change. The earliest representation of Sebastian is a mosaic in the Byzantine style in the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, dated between 527 and 565 (fig.2). He has a halo and holds a laurel wreath, indicating his victory over (his first) death. There are no arrows or archers to indicate the nature of his martyrdom. He is merely one of twenty-six other saints depicted, each interchangeably identical with the other. He has yet to assume full symbolic iconography. In the central panel of Giovanni del Biondi’s altarpiece, showing the martyrdom of

Mills, Suspended Animation, p.193 Ibid, p.193 15 Robert Mills in Gender and Holiness: Men, Women and Saints in Late Medieval Europe, eds. Samantha J.E Riches and Sarah Salih, Routledge, 2002, p.163


Figure 2. Saint Sebastian, Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy, 527-565. Figure 3. Benozzo Gozzoli, Saint Sebastian, Absidal Chapel, San Gimignano, Italy, 1464-1465.

Figure 4. Giovanni del Biondi, The Martyrdom of St Sebastian and Scenes from His Life, 1370.

Sebastian and scenes from his life (fig. 4), he conforms to Voragine’s hedgehog description. In case we should be in any doubt about his sainthood, he is depicted as Christ-like, a condition which is accentuated by the elevated position of the body, suspended on a column of wood, so familiar from paintings of the crucifixion. In the middle of the right hand panel, he is beaten to death with clubs and tossed into the sewer, and at the bottom of this panel, we see him being carried out of the same pit, miraculously intact and complete with halo. In Florence, the cult of Saint Sebastian centred on the church of SS Annunziata. The saint’s preserved arm was kept here, in the chapel of the Pucci family and the altar-piece was the Pollaiuolo brothers’ Martyrdom of St Sebastian.16 The triangular arrangement of the action leads the eye to its apex, where we see the resigned face of the (now) young saint. He stands on a truncated tree, the denuded nature of which intensifies the effect of near-nakedness of the youth. A knout of gauzy material bunches over his genitals, both hiding and drawing

16 Behind the church was the Compagnia di San Sebastiano, the reliquary tabernacle of which boasted a fragment of Sebastian’s head.

Figure 5. Antonio del Pollaiuolo and Piero del Pollaiuolo, The Martyrdom of St Sebastian, 1475.

attention to them. Crowded into the foreground, forming a heavy baseline to the triangle, the burly soldiers reload and aim their weapons to take pot shots at their former comrade-in-arms. There is an informality about them; none is in uniform (indeed, one is as near-naked as their target), and there is an irregularity about their method, suggesting that this is just a lark to be undertaken in their ‘down time’. It is the casual nature of their approach which is so shocking. We see in Francesco da Cotignola’s work from 1513 one of the youngest, or at least youngest-looking Sebastians (fig.6). Tethered loosely by the wrists to a tree, which would enable him a good degree of wriggling space, the saint appears to be no older than his mid-teens, far too young to tally with the historical figure, who was captain of the praetorian guards. Two arrows have already struck him; one is lodged in his ribs and one has gone through his right thigh. The boy’s orange wrap is about to be blown free, its curling ends echoing his ringlets. Unusually for images of Sebastian, the boy gazes disconsolately down

Figure 6. Francesco da Cotignola (known as Francesco Zaganelli), Saint Sebastian, 1513 Pinacoteca Nazionale, Ferrara, Italy

at the ground, rather that heavenwards, and this accentuates his human-ness. One of the reasons for the saint’s increasingly youthful depiction from 1450 onwards was to correspond
to people’s physical need to strengthen, in their imagination, their vital pneuma threatened by the plague. Furthermore, the artists found various expedients to captivate the viewers’ gaze on the picture, and focus on the martyr’s physical beauty which incarnated holiness in the world of painting and imagination. Ideally, once becoming real in the faithful’s mind, Saint Sebastian would have spiritually embraced their hearts and kept their bodies alive.17

17 Karim Ressouni-Demigneaux, ‘The “Imaginary” Life of Saint Sebastian,’ in the catalogue for The Agony and the Ecstasy: Guido Reni’s Saint Sebastians, eds. Piero Boccardo and Xavier F. Salomon, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 2008, p.24

In the painting, Saint Anthony, Saint Sebastian and Saint Roch by the Maestro di Tavernelle (fig. 7) we are presented a three-in-one intercession against the plague. Saint Anthony appears on the left, with his trademark boar at heel,18 Sebastian, bound to a hacked tree, is studded with arrows, as expected, and Saint Roch - who actually contracted the plague and recovered - nonchalantly

Figure 7. Maestro di Tavarnelle, Saint Anthony, Saint Sebastian and Saint Roch, 1510-1515.

lifts his tunic and casually points to a bubo in his groin. Here, the very real, physical horrors of the plague collide with the symbol of its random attack, in a picture designed to doubly ensure that the faithful were spared. Sixteenth-century viewers of this painting would have been well aware that the arrows symbolised God’s indiscriminate, arbitrary casting down of the disease.
The association of arrows with divinely sent disease is ancient. The Old Testament repeatedly mentions arrows as metaphors for God’s punishments, as at Deuteronomy 32:23, “I will spend mine arrows upon them,” or at Psalm 64:7, “But God shall shoot at them with an arrow; suddenly they shall be wounded,” or Psalm 7:12, “he hath bent his bow and made it ready.” The celestially afflicted Job laments; “For the arrows of the
18 The pig of St. Anthony indicates the saint’s triumph over gluttony. But, as this is a painting to ward off disease, a more likely reason for Anthony’s inclusion is the fact that it was once believed that the skin condition erysipelas, known as "St. Anthony's fire,” could be cured with pig lard.

almighty are within me,” (6:4) and “his archers compass me round about” (16:13). Classical authors spoke of pestilence as arrows, as did Christian writers during the First Pandemic. While at Rome in 590 Honorius of Autun wrote of “arrows falling from Heaven.”19

Prolepsis Made Visible From this point, a shift in representations of Sebastian begins to occur. In about 1525, Bronzino painted an unconventional Saint Sebastian with unmistakable homoerotic appeal (fig. 8). It is likely to have been painted as a private commission, as there is no record of its being connected to a church, and this would have enabled Bronzino to dispense with the usual requirements of devotional painting. Here, there are no archers and no halo. In an article about the painting, Janet Cox-Rearick states:
Bronzino’s St Sebastian belongs to a type of devotional painting of the half-length saint (draped or nude) holding an arrow (and sometimes also the martyr’s palm) which appears in the later quattrocento in northern and central Italian painting, but apparently not in Florence.20

Sebastian’s puppy dog eyes are not directed to heaven, but at an unseen other, offstage. The young man is sensuously draped in pink material.
The arrows, moreover, are not abstract symbols of his ordeal…but erotic emblems: one 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…These characteristics…suggest that (the painting) may have been intended to have an ambiguous meaning – an image, on the one hand, religious, and on the other, homoerotic. 21

Cox-Rearick speaks about the figure leaning forward and resting his left arm upon a ledge, in the manner of another painting by Bronzino, a Saint Mark from around the same period. On closer inspection, however, it is clear that in fact Sebastian is resting his left elbow upon his left leg. Visually, this makes more sense; the curve of his left knee can be discerned just as it leaves the bottom right corner of the picture; his foreshortened right knee appears directly under his open right hand. This gives the image an even more erotic flavour; Sebastian would then be seated square to the viewer, his torso slightly turning towards his right to engage the unseen other, mentioned previously. This reading now places the arrow, so provocatively fondled in Cox-Rearick’s description, not resting along a ledge, but in front of the young man’s crotch, which seems much more appropriate for such an intentionally erotic image. That there are only two arrows in this painting reinforces the homoerotic intent; the young man presents an image of homosexual versatility, having been penetrated while also offering the promise of penetrating.
19 20

Joseph Byrne, The Black Death, Greenwood, p. 94 Janet Cox-Rearick, ‘A St Sebastian by Bronzino’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 129, No. 1008, March, 1987, p. Ibid p. 161


Figure 8. Bronzino, St Sebastian, 1525-1528.

Figure 9. Bronzino, Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus, 1538-1540.

Ten years later, Bronzino was to paint another erotic male portrait, this time of Cosimo I de’ Medici (fig. 9) in the role of Orpheus. But here the message is resolutely heterosexual; the pink wrap is identical, but the blushing grand duke has almost completely slipped out of it. The picture frankly conveys his prowess as a lover, in the suggestive way he grips the fret of the lira da braccio, the keybox of which is vaginal, and in the way he grasps the bow, which juts from between his legs and points up towards that emblem. In the mid 1980s, when the painting was cleaned, it was discovered that Bronzino had made several key modifications, which played up the eroticism: he changed the key box from a spade-shape into the vaginal shape, lowered Cosimo’s leg and dropped the bow to its present phallic position and brought the instrument closer to his body. Originally, the duke was more chastely draped with material. In the final version this was stripped completely away. The tone and meaning of the painting changed from heroic to erotic, probably at the request of the sitter.22 Perugino painted eleven Sebastians. One of these, now housed at The Hermitage (fig. 10), is unusual for its personalisation. There have been many hundreds of Sebastians painted over the centuries, but this small picture by

22 Mark Tucker, ‘Discoveries Made during the Treatment of Bronzino's "Cosimo I de' Medici as Orpheus"’, Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 81, No. 348, Medici Portraits (Autumn, 1985) pp. 28 – 32

Figure 10. Perugino, Saint Sebastian, c.1495.

Perugino is perhaps one of the most intimate. The painting is a smaller, pared down version of a full-figure Sebastian, now in the Louvre, which Perugino painted around the same time. It is impossible to say whether the image was made as a study for the larger picture, or was made after the fact. In this smaller image, we see Sebastian wistfully, almost casually, gazing heavenward, a single arrow jutting from his neck. On the arrow shaft, Perugino has signed the painting in Latin, ‘Petrus Perusinus Pinxit’ (‘painted by Pietro Perugino’). There is nothing else present in the picture to indicate the special significance of the saint, and nothing to anchor our attention. Because of this, and Perugino’s cropping of the figure, the viewer is forced into an intimate, circuitous journey around the image, a journey that continuously takes in each of Sebastian’s nipples and his upturned left eye at the end of each triangulate pass. With all of the images of Sebastian, as in images of Christ, it was vitally important that the viewer saw him, first and foremost as a man. The promise of heavenly bliss hinged upon transcending the gamut of human frailties, including base sexuality. This demanded an acknowledgement that he had a sexuality to transcend in the first place. The problem for Renaissance painters, therefore,

was how to refer to this aspect of real life. Writing specifically about images of Christ, Leo Steinberg states the following:
If the Resurrection restores man’s body to its aboriginal innocence, not excluding its onceshameful member; and if, to the living who abide in concupiscence, that member may not be exposed without inciting “the lust of the eyes”; then how exhibit the wholeness of the glorified body without offending either its truth or our guilt-edged community standards? To which [artists] reply: by prolepsis made visible. The revelation of the risen Christ’s nakedness – like offstage violence in classical theatre – is dramatised with no exposure at all.23

This was done either by presenting a mightily exaggerated billow of material at the crotch, or by following the contours of the holy erection, as in the following two images (figs. 11 and 12). In such naturalistic images as these, it cannot be claimed that the vagaries of material alone are responsible for the phallic protuberances depicted. In each case the ‘once-shameful member’ is revealed by being ‘hidden’. 24

Figure 11. Hans Schaufelein, Crucifixion, 1515. Figure 12. Ludwig Krug, Man of Sorrows, c.1520.

The same is no less true of Sebastian, as the following images will show. He is a saint but he is a man. The enduring erotic nature of his image in works of art is

Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, University of Chicago Press,

24 Further reading on images of Christ’s erection in Renaissance paintings can be found in the chapter, ‘The Ibiquity of the Erection Motif’ in Steinberg, pp 298 - 325

due to efforts to obfuscate, and to the varying degrees that artists met this challenge.

Figure 13. Dosso Dossi, Saint Sebastian, 1500s.

In the Sebastian by Dosso Dossi (Giovanni di Niccolò de Luteri) (fig. 13) the martyr has been tethered by his wrists to what appears to be an apple tree, in a courtyard garden. The discarded armour in the bottom left of the picture indicates Sebastian’s erstwhile profession and emphasises his vulnerable nakedness. The curve of the arched window behind him is taken up by the fall of a green shroud, which we follow from its first appearance just behind his head. It forms a spiral as it sweeps round to his groin, where it covers his genitals, and slips between his clenched thighs, to reappear, falling in a train behind him to the ground. Because of the apple tree and the serpentine shroud, the picture has subliminal Adamic implications which powerfully reinforce the notion of Sebastian’s humanity and his sexuality. In Jacopo de’ Barbari’s engraving from the same period (fig. 14) we see a more obvious reference to Sebastian’s physical sexuality, which is just as frank as the

sexual images of Christ already discussed. We see the young blonde saint stretched against a tree trunk, his arms tethered above his head. Light rakes across his torso like a promise of heaven to come. He looks like a Bondi surfer about to catch some morning waves. Around his waist he wears a loincloth, like a beach towel. If we examine this material more closely we can clearly see that it has begun to slip off his loins, and yet something ‘pegs’ it in place. As the cloth wraps around his waist, it curls about something unseen beneath, in front, which prevents it from sliding completely off. There is absolutely nothing else it can be but his penis which, if not erect and pointing straight towards the viewer, is certainly turgid enough to effect this ‘pinning’. There are several other factors which I believe also make it probable that the sexuality of the saint is unmistakably implied. Because of the cropping of both the youth and the tree, the idea of phallic erection is powerfully suggested. The cropped tree is now just a trunk; its veins and ridges make it resemble an erect penis. This effect is heightened by the sprig of new growth at its base which, while a symbol of spiritual renewal, is also reminiscent of pubic hair. Sebastian’s straining torso reiterates the straining trunk/erection while his actual tumescence,

Figure 14. Jacopo de’ Barbari, St. Sebastian, engraving early 1500s

beneath the loincloth, points towards the viewer, reinforcing the idea of Sebastian-as-phallus. The fact that he has not yet been ‘feminised’ by any

penetrating arrows emphasises the active masculine role of the saint in this picture; this is an image about masculine carnality. In the following three full-length paintings of Sebastian that Perugino painted in the 1490s, we again see such an eroticisation of the saint due to this (non)focus on his genitalia. In each of these pictures, Perugino fashions the material of the loincloth so that it suggests or mimics the saint’s penis. In the painting, now housed in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm (fig 15), this is a twofold suggestion.

Figure 15. Perugino, Saint Sebastian, fifteenth-century. Figure 16. Perugino, Saint Sebastian, 1494.

The end of the loose blue loincloth is draped over and back, at the waist, so that Perugino can use a loop of it to protrude out from Sebastian’s body, in the position of his penis; the rest of the material then narrowly hangs down between his legs, in the place of a tapered, second penis. This effect is more startling, however, in the Louvre painting (fig 16), for here, the end of the loincloth material not merely suggests, but imitates a well-proportioned member. The decorative red end of the material reinforces this reference; and, with the position of the two arrows, completes a triangle of elements which jut down or out from the saint’s body. In the final of these three paintings, Madonna and Child with Saints (fig 17), Perugino repeats Sebastian’s pose of the previous painting, and once again

presents the dangling phantom penis. Once again, the arrows have been kept to an absolute minimum, indeed, they are almost invisible at first glance, so that nothing interrupts the otherwise flawless beauty of the saint’s body. Recent restoration of the painting revealed that Perugino originally painted a suggestion of pubic hair just above the phallic material. At some point, he, or a moral watchdog from the church, must have felt that he had crossed the line and that the hair would have made the symbolic dangling cloth a too literal suggestion of carnality, and it was painted it out.

Figure 17. Perugino, Madonna and Child with Saint John and Saint Sebastian, 1490s.

This painting was re-imagined by a follower of Perugino (fig 18) in around 1500. The artist accurately copied the position of Sebastian and the colour of the loincloth from the original painting, but introduced a significant new element, in the placement and the symbolic meaning attached to the arrow. In this painting, the figure is cropped at mid-thigh and the decorative loincloth is now little more than a tantalising ribbon crossed over the genitals, as though they are a gift to be unwrapped. The painter has given the saint a roseate blush over his hairless pubic region, which also spreads up to the site of an arrow, which is buried, midshaft, in his lower abdomen. A small trail of blood inches towards his groin and a second runnel of blood races down the shaft of the arrow; two drops have been

caught, in trompe l'oeil clarity, just at the moment they fall from the wood. As this is the only motion in an otherwise static painting, our attention is constantly drawn back to the youth’s crotch, expectantly waiting for the eventual fall of the drops. The arrow is a visual counterpoint to the direction of the saint’s gaze; both elements suggest a way out of the picture plane, and their direction can be followed back to their intersection over the youth’s heart. The lone arrow is significant; its very close proximity to the boy’s penis reinforces the homoerotic

Figure 18. Follower of Perugino, Saint Sebastian, c.1500.

message. As with Bronzino’s homoerotic Sebastian, the arrow suggests homosexual versatility; it juts from the body as a ‘stand-in’ penis, even as it penetrates that body; again, Steinberg’s ‘prolepsis made visible’. It seems that the homosexual codification of the saint was generally well understood, even by the late 1400s:
The attraction for homosexuals of the nude Sebastian-Apollo type invented in the Renaissance, especially the depiction of the actual event of his near-martyrdom from the emperor's arrows, is well-known. There was also a Renaissance literary tradition of Sebastian as a code name for a homosexual, which surfaces in the characters of Viola and Julia disguised as 'Sebastians' in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.25

Invariably, during the 1500s, Sebastian was portrayed as a desirable youth, with all the attractive physical attributions of that state; a situation that was lamented by Louis Reau in his Iconographie de I'Art Chritien. Reau points to Il Sodoma’s particular, nefarious influence: ‘II ne reste plus que le patronage comprometant et inavouable des sodomites ou homosexuels, seduits par sa nudite d'ephebe apollonien, glorifie par Le Sodoma.26 Il Sodoma (Giovanni Antonio Bazzi) was an attention-seeking painter who seems to have delighted in causing controversy; he gained a scandalous reputation in his lifetime as a sodomite. He seems to have adopted the ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ approach. In his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Vasari says that Sodoma was ‘licentious’ and ‘dishonourable’ and that he ‘always had beardless youths and boys about him, of whom he was inordinately fond’, which earned him the nickname ‘Sodoma’. In all likelihood, the name began as a casual joke, but Sodoma gleefully adopted the sobriquet, which stuck for all time. And far from feeling shame, he wrote verses about it and sang them to a lute’s accompaniment. In Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence, Michael Rocke writes:
In 1515 the winner of the horse race, or palio, for the feast of the Baptist was a horse owned by the flamboyant Sienese painter Giovanbattista Bazzi, known as Sodoma for his erotic interest in young males. Following custom, after the race, boys and youths trooped through the city shouting the victor’s name: “Sodoma! Sodoma!” Vasari noted that the cries of “such a filthy name” scandalised certain “old notables” (vecchi uomini da bene), who in turn stirred up a violent mob against Sodoma and his horse. 27

It was not only horses that interested Sodoma; he also kept a menagerie. Vasari tells us that the artist had:
a fancy for keeping all sorts of strange animals in his house, badgers, squirrels, apes, cata-mountains, Barbary race-horses, Elba ponies, jackdaws, bantams, turtle-doves, and other animals of similar kind, whatever he could get into his hands in short . . . and besides the animals above named, he had a raven, which he had so effectively taught to speak that
Cox-Rearick, p. 161 L. Reau, Iconographie de I'Art Chritien, Paris, 1958, Vol 3, Chapter 2, p.1190 27 Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence, Oxford University Press, 1996 p.230-231
26 25

this creature counterfeited [his] the voice exactly in…replying to any one who knocked at the door…The other animals also were so tame that they were constantly assembled about his person, while he was in the house, and came round all who approached him, playing the strangest tricks… [T]he dwelling of this man seemed like the very ark of Noah.28

Figure 19. Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, (called Il Sodoma), Saint Sebastian, 1525.

He insisted that the animals shared his lodgings in any town in which he happened to be working on a commission; indeed, when he painted a fresco about the life of Saint Benedict on the walls of the Abbey at Monte Oliveto Maggiore, he included a full-length self portrait, with his pet badgers gazing lovingly up at him. This, together with his outrageous clothes, led the monks of Monte Oliveto to call him Il Mattaccio (the maniac). His Sebastian (fig.19), which

In this, he was similar to the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In a lecture given at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, 16 April, 2003, entitled ‘Rossetti's Wombat: A Pre-Raphaelite Obsession in Victorian England’, Angus Trumble tells us that ‘as soon as he arrived [at his house at 19 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea], Rossetti began to fill the garden with exotic birds and animals. There were owls, including a barn owl called Jessie, two or more armadillos, rabbits, dormice and a raccoon that hibernated in a chest of drawers. There were peacocks, parakeets, and kangaroos and wallabies, about which we know frustratingly little. There was a Canadian marmot or woodchuck, a Pomeranian puppy called Punch, an Irish deerhound called Wolf, a Japanese salamander and two laughing jackasses. We know the neighbours were tolerant up to a point but Thomas Carlyle, for one, was driven mad by the noise. At length there was a small Brahmin bull that had to go when it chased Rossetti around the garden, and, in September 1869, a long-awaited wombat’.

is a triumph of preternatural hallucination, is made the more effective for placing the solid, life-like figure in front of a somewhat artificial ‘backdrop’ scene, complete with non-descript ‘extras’ in the distance. These are the soldiers returning to the barracks, who must surely have been the most incompetent executioners in history, for they have done a half-hearted job by anyone’s standards; only five arrows have been loosed and only three of these pierce Sebastian’s body, one through the neck, the other through his left thigh, and one is lodged in his ribs; he is no longer Voragine’s hedgehog. It is perhaps the first (and certainly one of the very few) paintings of the saint wherein misfired arrows are depicted; a couple of bolts are embedded in the limbs of the tree and, apart from lending a strange naturalism to the otherwise artificial scene, serve to direct the eye to the winged angel hovering overhead. This lack of enthusiasm on the part of the soldiers would certainly explain why Sebastian recovered from his wounds, but does little to support the ‘miraculous’ side of the story. The image evinces an hysteria unprecedented in previous images of Sebastian; which suggests that Sodoma, who, as we have seen, was publicly identified (even vilified) as a sodomite, was (perhaps unconsciously) presenting more than simply the image of an ancient saint. In his essay, ‘Homosexuality in the Renaissance: Behaviour, Identity, and Artistic Expression,’ James Saslow, writing about the picture states that Sebastian:
writhes in ostensibly religious ecstasy open to multiple personalized interpretations, from the epitome of sado-masochism to the artist’s comment on his own public ‘martyrdom’.29

‘To the Fire! They are all Sodomites!’ During this period, Florence had a notorious reputation throughout Europe; in Germany, for instance, the word ‘florenzen’ became slang for male-to-male sexual congress, while a sodomite was known as a Florenzer. The reasons for the extraordinarily high instances of sodomy in the city may have been due to the late average age for men to marry.
…Florentine men normally put off marriage until the average age of thirty or thirty-one, and a large proportion never took a wife. Among other social consequences, the abundance of virile and not-so-young bachelors denied legitimate sexual outlets tended to foster an environment in which unauthorised sexual activity of all sorts flourished.30

The vast majority of these men were not ‘homosexual’ in the modern sense of the word, and they were not involved in anything like a modern gay subculture, as we would recognise it today. Many men, whom we would never consider homosexual, regularly engaged in male-to-male sexual contact since it was such a pervasive part of the drinking, gambling and open sexuality of the single-male culture. But some men did have a lifelong preference for sex with other males.
29 James Saslow, ‘Homosexuality in the Renaissance: Behaviour, Identity and Artistic Expression,’ in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, eds. M.B. Duberman, M. Vicinus and G. Chauncey, Jr., N.Y. New American Library, 1989, pp. 90-105 30 Rocke, pp. 28-9

Some men pursued young men throughout their lives, sometimes developing relationships lasting two, three or even four years. If they were single, that was usually their primary sexual outlet. If they were married, some still preferred young men to their wives. Many of these sexual relationships were tolerated and even encouraged by parents who understood that they could gain protection, political advancement and financial gain from a son's well-placed lover. But the authorities were keen to correct this ‘anomaly’ and, in 1432, the Office of the Night was established in Florence. Its duty was to investigate and charge those accused of sodomy. It existed for seventy years and over this period it is estimated that, in the small city of just 40,000 people, 17,000 men were incriminated on charges of sodomy; that is, nearly half the male population over two generations.
During the seventy-year tenure from 1432 to 1502, this magistracy, with the limited participation of other courts, carried out the most extensive and systematic persecution of homosexual activity in any pre-modern city. Yet in doing so the courts also brought to light a thriving and multifaceted sexual culture that was solidly integrated into the broader male world of Florence.31

Sex between males was so integral a part of Florentine life that sodomites (and the legal system) used specialised vocabulary to describe various activities. Common amongst which were: sodimitare (to sodomise), abbracciare (to embrace), buggerare (to bugger), fottere (to fuck), servire (to serve), usare or adoperare (to use), fare (to do), cagna (bitch) and bardassuola or bardassa (rentboy, in modern parlance). Legal descriptions also used verbs in the active or passive forms, depending on the actions of the defendants.32 The pervasive general climate of male to male sexual activity was obvious. It was written about extensively:
Attacks on notorious sodomites appeared regularly, suggesting that their actions were broadly public. Poems such as ‘La buca di Montmorello’ and ‘Il gagno’, probably composed between 1407 and 1412 by Stephano Finiguerri, included obvious allusions to Florentine institutions and individuals associated with sodomy. Other works presented sodomy in a positive light. Antonio Beccadelli’s Hermaphroditus (1425) celebrated pleasure for the passive partner, as did Antonio Rocco’s L’Alcibiade fianciullo a scola (c. 1630). Francesco Beccuti of Perugia rejected sex with women in favour of sodomy in his ‘In lode della pederastia’ (In Praise of Pederasty).33

Boxes were set up in the city, where people could lodge anonymous accusations of sodomy. There were interrogations and men would implicate others in order to have their own penalty remitted. The extensive data collected by the Office of the Night reveals that sodomy was mainly a crime of young men. Passive partners were usually aged from 12 to 20 (only 3 percent were over 20). Of active partners, 82.5 percent were 19 or older. It was considered particularly degrading

Rocke, p.4

Katherine Crawford, ‘Deviancy and the Cultures of Sex’ in European Sexualities, 1400-1800, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 201 33 Ibid, p. 201


for someone to remain a passive partner once he was a grown man, but that is not to say that this did not happen. It was expected that a shift would occur, from the passive to the active partner, in the late teenage years. This activity would usually taper off in the late-twenties to mid-thirties, when typically a Florentine man would marry.34 The firebrand priest, Bernardino of Siena, vilified both Jews and sodomites, but it was the latter that particularly incensed him.
The sermons of Bernardino of Siena are probably the most extensive and vivid commentary on sodomy in late medieval Italy that we possess by a single contemporary. ...Bernardino was an astute observer and critic who was highly sensitive to the social and political problems of his culture. And few activities aroused more concern and provoked more repression in fifteenth-century Tuscany than did male homosexuality.35

Bernardino’s sermons attracted huge crowds. He told of a sodomite in Verona who had been hacked into quarters and his limbs hung on the city gates and another in Venice who had been smothered in flaming pitch and burnt to death; he exhorted the crowd to do the same, even if they had to burn every man and youth in the city.36 On the 7th of April 1424, he told the congregation at Sante Croce, Florence:
Whenever you hear sodomy mentioned, each and every one of you spit on the ground and clean your mouth out as well. If they don't want to change their ways by any other means, maybe they will change when they're made fools of. Spit hard! Maybe the water of your spit will extinguish their fire.

The scribe recorded that the great mass of people then spat disgustedly on the stone floor, with a noise that sounded like thunder. Two days later Bernardino staged a (literally) more inflammatory piece of public theatre. Shouting ‘To the fire!’ and ‘They are all sodomites!’ he led the revved-up congregation out of Sante Croce and into the piazza, where his assistants had piled a mountain of clothing, wigs, cosmetics and other effeminate vanities. The preacher set the pile alight, to the roar of the cheering horde.37 Bernardino loudly declaimed what he viewed as the increasingly relaxed attitude to sodomy in Florence. He was attempting to revive the vociferous prosecution and brutal punishment of sodomites that had existed in the city just sixty years before. One example of this is as follows: in 1365, fifteen-year-old Giovanni di Giovanni was arrested for allowing himself to be buggered by a number of young men. He was labelled a ‘public and notorious passive sodomite’. Dragged outside the city walls on an ass, he was then castrated in front of the crowd and branded with a red hot iron ‘in that part of his body where he allowed himself to be known in sodomitical practice’.38 It is a telling point that the young men, the active partners in the various sexual acts with Giovanni, were not subjected to this brutality; which goes to illustrate how sexual politics of the time were intricately linked to
Ruth Mazo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others, Routledge, 2005, pp.139 - 40 ‘Sodomites in Fifteenth-Century Tuscany: The Views of Bernardino of Siena’, in The Pursuit of Sodomy: Male Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe, eds: Kent Gerard & Gert Hekma, Haworth Press, 1988, p.8 36 Authorities in Venice had also called for barber surgeons to report anyone seeking treatment for anal injury. 37 Ibid, p. 7 38 Robert Mills, ’Eliminating Sodom’ in Suspended Animation, p. 95
35 34

masculine power politics and the clear distinction between, and tacit acceptance of, the masculine ‘do-er’ and the feminised ‘done to’. Bernardino also had grave concerns about much religious imagery and how it could be interpreted lasciviously by those so inclined.
Certainly the medieval ideal was to rise above the corporeal contemplation of images, and…images were not the ultimate goal of spiritual meditation. But that does not mean that viewers always, then or now, perceived representations in terms of those ideals. Bernardino of Siena, for instance, expresses the concern that images of Christ’s passion are potentially corrupting and warns of the dangers of viewing human flesh in sacred art, even the flesh of Christ himself. As he announces, in his treatise De inspirationibus, ‘I know a person who, while contemplating the humanity of Christ suspended on the cross (I am ashamed to say and it is terrible even to imagine), sensually and repulsively polluted and defiled himself.’39

Bernardino does not indicate whether the onanist in question indulged himself in his private chambers or in a public venue. The seeking of erotic potential in holy images was not restricted to this one single example.
Erotic responses to images of female saints were documented in the writings of German iconoclasts; reformers such as Zwingli likewise reproved the sexual arousal elicited by images of male religiosity. The Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, indeed, decreed with respect to the veneration of relics and the sacred use of images, that ‘all superstition shall be removed, all the filthy quest for gain eliminated, and all lasciviousness avoided, so that images shall not be painted and adorned with a seductive charm’. Sexuality is not simply something that modern beholders ‘read into’ the texts and images of times past. Regulations such as this bear witness to the zeal with which authorities attempted to read it out.40

From the late Middle Ages, throughout Europe, there was a perceived complicity of the sacred and the erotic in Christian representation. As early as 1402, the bishop of Paris, Jean Gerson, wrote a treatise on the ‘corruption of the youth’ in which he demanded laws against the sale of dirty pictures. At one point he laments ‘the filthy corruption of boys and adolescents by shameful nude pictures offered for sale at the very temples and sacred places’.41 It should be remembered that during this period it was the norm for stalls to be set up within churches and cathedrals with items for sale, and even for meat and other food to be cooked within them and sold to pilgrims, who may have journeyed over many miles. Creating a festive atmosphere was also undoubtedly a way of ensuring a regular attendance by the masses. That proto-pornography was also being sold within churches, cathedrals and elsewhere, is perhaps surprising to us today; it is often commonly assumed that pornography is a fairly recent phenomenon, one that has quickly moved from ‘underground’ to mainstream, thanks to its ubiquity on the Internet. But it is clear that people of the distant past also had access to

Mills, ‘Hanging With Christ’, p. 193 Ibid, p.193 41 Mills, Gender and Holiness, p.163

and desired to see erotic material. These were not the unsophisticated, pious innocents of popular imagination and they were certainly capable of, and willing to, imbue a holy Christian image with baser, earthly meanings; ‘visual images of the tortured body of Christ and the saints are not [and were not] devoid of the capacity to signify erotically, or even homoerotically.’42 A useful example of this ability of ordinary people to link the sacred and the profanely erotic is given in Steinberg43 and a fuller version appears in Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France by Natalie Zemon Davis. The incident occurred in 1530 in the town of Senlis, France. A twenty-year-old barber, Guillaume Caranda, on the day of the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, played the role of Christ and placed himself in a tomb, ‘in record and representation of his holy resurrection’. His neighbours were playing other roles. Later that evening, the local toolmaker, Claude Caure, approached Caranda and sarcastically said, ‘I see the god on earth. Did you keep your big cock stiff while playing God?’
uttering these dishonest words arrogantly and against the honour of Christianity. To which the supplicant responded that ‘[Caure’s] was neither very hard nor heated up’, and that he was gelded, and after these words he and his company went on their way.44

Later in the evening, as Caranda and his friends were returning home, they passed by Caure’s door, who again began insulting Caranda, giving him ‘two slaps on his head and face and made his bonnet for to fall to the ground.’45 In self-defence, Caranda drew his knife and struck Caure in the left eye. Caure later died, but the court noted that Caranda had been provoked, and he was pardoned. The bawdy connection between the rising of Christ and the rising of Caranda’s putative erection was clearly inferred by Caure and clearly understood by Caranda. A ‘lewd linkage of phallic erection with bodily resurrection must have been broadly vernacular since the 14th century, endemic in stews and taverns, if not the Schools.’46

Ibid, p.162 Steinberg, p.317 Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France, Stanford University Press, 1990, pp. 30 - 31 45 Ibid, p31 46 Steinberg, p.316.
43 44


Figure 20. Antonio Garcia Roldan, Saint Sebastian, 2005.

Part Two – Sebastian in the Nineteenth and Twentieth-Centuries

HIV attacks the cells that coordinate virtually all phases of the immune response. Shortly after it invades the body, HIV may trigger a brief, febrile illness that resembles influenza or mononucleosis, but then it remains latent, in some cases for at least ten years, causing only minor symptoms such as persistent swollen lymph nodes, night sweats, fatigue, and diarrhoea. Eventually, something kicks into high gear. It reproduces rapidly, cripples the immune system, and leaves the person vulnerable to opportunistic infections that can affect every organ system of the body. Caused by organisms that are usually harmless in humans, these illnesses signal the start of AIDS, the final stage of HIV infection.47 The boy with a thorn in his side / behind the hatred there lies / a murderous desire for love48 Owing partly to the medicalisation of homosexuality as a distinctly feminising illness at the fin de siecle, Sebastian has come to represent the formation – and self-formation – of the modern male homosexual.49

Quills Poised
Kohn, p. 334 The Smiths, ‘The Boy With a Thorn in His Side’, 1985. 49 Richard A. Kaye, ‘Losing His Religion’ in Outlooks: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities and Visual Cultures, Routledge, 1996.
48 47

Increasingly, from the nineteenth and throughout the twentieth-century, Saint Sebastian became the subject of profane interpretation. Largely freed from the burden of specifically Christian meaning, his symbology was adapted to fit a host of purposes. For gay viewers he had obvious appeal and he became a symbol of gay persecution (and later, of gay pride). They could identify with his isolation within a society where true identity has to be hidden, and on his inner strength in admitting who he truly is when questioned. During this ‘coming out’, he is persecuted but survives his wounds, whereupon he is ‘reborn’ and confronts his persecutors. In the 1980s, as the AIDS epidemic decimated the gay population of San Francisco and New York, Sebastian’s original status as intercessor against the plague gave him new relevance. In nineteenth-century art and literature, strong connections were made between beauty, chastity and death. It was natural, therefore, that inversion, as homosexuality was then known, would likewise find its representation in an image of noble suffering. Sebastian became an obvious cipher for queer-leaning aesthetes. The Victorian ‘invert’, so adept at deciphering hidden codes in art, literature and everyday social interaction, now had a personalised idol. The martyrdom of the beautiful boy-saint translated well to a sense of isolation and difference; a difference that there were no words to fully describe, as the nature of the difference had not yet entered into the medical canon. Paradoxically, then, it was with words that Sebastian was reinvigorated from the mid-1800s into the early 1900s. Such writers as Pater, Wilde, Symonds, Proust, Rilke, Frederick Rolfe and the poet John Gray, ‘adopted Sebastian as either an organising motif in their writing or as a personal credo denoting social and sexual pariahdom.’50
One reason that the old murder story produced, and reproduced itself in, nineteenthcentury gay texts with such facility is that nineteenth-century gay writers were preoccupied with the murderous homophobia of the British state… [T]he erotically outrageous, outrageously erotic specter of the hanged sodomite haunted these men long after Parliament abolished the death penalty for sodomy.51

The Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 formally abolished the death penalty for sodomy. Instead, perpetrators could expect life sentences of penal servitude or, in the case of ‘indecent assault’, a prison sentence of between two and ten years, often with hard labour, as it was in Wilde’s case.52 In print, Sebastian was refashioned as the fin-de-siècle homoerotic cipher and usually appeared as a doomed voluptuary; a boyishly effete outsider, too fragile to live in this world.
The saint's enduring popularity as a ‘gay icon’ was intensely over-determined, owing only in part to his role in Renaissance painting as an extraordinarily beautiful male evidently at peace with his arrow-ridden state. As with the popular fin de siècle myth of the vampire, Sebastian's beatific attitude in the midst of an arrow-inflicted anguish suggests a

Richard A. Kaye, ‘Losing His Religion’, p.113. Kevin Kopelson’s, Love’s Litany: The Writing of Modern Homoerotics, Stanford University Press, 1994, p.30 52 A full description of penalties meted out to British homosexuals in the nineteenth-century can be found in Harry Cocks’ Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the 19th Century, I.B.Tauris, 2003.

polymorphous eroticism, a ‘perverse’ stance of bodily vulnerability exploited by numerous late-Victorian writers.53

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, first published in 1890, Oscar Wilde describes a cloak owned by Gray, upon which were ‘medallions of many saints and martyrs, among whom was St. Sebastian’.54 That Wilde felt compelled to draw attention to this one saint, amongst ‘many saints and martyrs’, is significant; in later years, whilst in exile in Paris, Wilde went under the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth, after ‘the famously penetrated Saint Sebastian’.55 Wilde’s erstwhile lover, the beautiful, working class poet John Gray,56 wrote his own poem about Sebastian, in which he played up the preternatural healing qualities of the saint: ‘Thou didst advene where men lay chained in the dark / and by thy bright touch their sicknesses were healed’.57 The poem prompted Aubrey Beardsley, in a letter to his friend the poet Marc-Andre Raffalovich, to wonder if:
Gray knows of Callot’s singularly interesting eau-forte of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. There is a charming soldier in the background picking up the arrows that have missed the Saint.58

The image to which Beardsley referred (figs. 21 & 22) is very unusual in representations of the saint, in that the narrative action seems almost completely incidental to the masterful examination of light and shadow. Callot was a master of the crowd-scene, which can also be observed in his series The Miseries of War, and in such images as The Massacre of the Innocents, wherein a thousand soldiers rampage through a city, dispatching the inhabitants. The Sebastian etching is part of Callot’s series of martyred saints, which includes Thomas, Barnabas and Thaddaeus. In the image, Sebastian is tethered to a stake in the centre of a ruined Arcadian landscape, his arms raised above his head. The flags and lances of the soldiers lend a festive air to the proceedings; soldiers and onlookers have climbed up the crumbling cliffs on either side in order to get a better view of the execution.

53 Richard Kaye, ‘Queer Arrows: St. Sebastian as Fin de Siècle Homosexual Martyr’ in A Splendid Readiness for Death, Kerber, 2003, p. 113. 54 Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Courier Dover Publications, 1993, p.102. 55 Wilde deliberately meshed good and evil in his chosen name: whilst Sebastian referred to the saint, Melmoth was a reference to Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin (1820), in which the hero sells his soul to the devil. The character was regarded by Balzac as one of the great outcasts of all literature and this point was not lost on Wilde, the great literary outcast.

Gray was also the inspiration behind Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde combined Gray’s surname with Dorian, which referred to the Dorians, one of the three major tribes of ancient Greece who were commonly understood by queer Victorians to have promulgated paederastic relations. Upon its publication in 1890, Dorian Gray received scathing reviews, such as this, from the Daily Chronicle: ‘[A] gloating study of the mental and physical corruption of a fresh, fair and golden youth, which might be horrible and fascinating but for its effeminate frivolity, its studied insincerity, its theatrical cynicism, its tawdry mysticism, its flippant philosophisings, and the contaminating trail of garish vulgarity which is over all Mr Wilde's elaborate Wardour Street aestheticism and obtrusively cheap scholarship.’ – Quoted in Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, ed. Karl Beckson, Barnes and Noble, 1970, p.72. 57 John Gray, ‘Saint Sebastian’, The Poems of John Gray, ed. Ian Fletcher, ELT Press, 1988, p. 183. 58 Aubrey Beardsley to Marc-Andre Raffalovich, 5 May, 1897, The Letters of Aubrey Beardsley, ed. Henry Maas, J.L. Duncan and W.G. Good, Plantin Publishers, 1970, p. 314.


Figure 21. Jaques Callot, The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, etching, 1631.

Figure 22. Jaques Callot, The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, 1631 (detail showing Beardsley’s ‘charming soldier’).

It takes a few glances to actually register the tiny saint within the image, the viewer’s attention is more immediately drawn to the shadowy archers in the foreground; but there he is, stretched against a totem pole in the sunlight. The soldier collecting the (disproportionately large) arrows in the background is just the sort of visual detail that the brilliant graphic artist Beardsley would pick up on.

But he was probably more interested in making a coded camp reference to the sexual relationship, which proved to be life-long, between Raffalovich and John Gray. Beardsley wrote the letter in 1897. The previous year, Raffalovich had converted to Catholicism, joining the Dominicans and taking the name Brother Sebastian.59 Rilke wrote his darkly erotic poem, ‘Saint Sebastian’, between 1905 and 1906, while he was working as Rodin’s secretary:
As one recumbent so he stands totally upheld by his great will. Withdrawn as mothers are when suckling still, and wrapt within himself as by a wreath. The arrows fly: up, up they come as if they sprang from out his tender loins, each iron quivering along its end. Yet he smiles darkly and remains unhurt. Once only, oh, so great his sorrow grows, his eyes reveal the pain as he looks on, but they change to denial, judging those inferiors as they scornfully let go the vile destroyers of a lovely thing.60

Rilke, who was raised a Catholic, makes the point, in the first stanza, of linking Sebastian to the Madonna, by likening him to a lactating mother. This connects him to images of Christ in mediaeval images, who, as Bynum points out, is frequently portrayed lactating or spurting blood or milk from his breast.61 For both Christ and Sebastian, this has the effect of sexually inverting him and making him a figure of both spiritual and physical nourishment. In the case of Rilke’s Sebastian, it also suggests the unavoidable sexual dimension of ‘one who is sucked’. This eroticism is heightened in the next stanza, with its ‘quivering arrows’ springing ‘from out his tender loins’. In the final stanza, we see Sebastian wantonly destroyed because of his beauty, which seems to be the whole point of his existence. In 1911 Franz Kafka wrote in his diary ‘I am supposed to pose in the nude for the artist Ascher, as a model for a St. Sebastian.’62 Unfortunately, there is no evidence that any such painting was ever completed.

59 Gray became a Catholic priest in the same year and was sent to Edinburgh. Raffalovich followed shortly afterwards and paid for Gray’s new church to be built. 60 Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Saint Sebastian’, in Selected Poems, trans. Albert Ernest Flemming, Routledge, 1986, p.103. 61 Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion, Zone Books, p. 93 62 Franz Kafka, The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1913, ed. Max Brod, Schocken Books, N.Y., 1988, p.222.

Marcel Proust made several references to Sebastian in Swann’s Way (1913) when linking him to the engineer, M. Legrandin; a cultured man of fluctuating sexuality, with a penchant for wearing make-up:
His fringed eyelids darkened, and drooped. His mouth, which had been stiffened and seared with bitter lines, was the first to recover, and smiled, while his eyes still seemed full of pain, like the eyes of a good-looking martyr whose body bristles with arrows.63

Of the hundreds of Sebastians available to queer aesthetes of the Victorian and Edwardian eras on their various grand tours, one artist in particular became their touchstone; Guido Reni, or ‘the Divine Guido’, as he was generally known. On one hand, this is perhaps surprising because John Ruskin had stridently attacked the artist for his 'taint and stain, and jarring discord... marked sensuality and impurity' and Guido’s star was very much on the wane.64 On the other hand, there was much queer speculation about his sexual predilection, based upon the potentially (homo)erotic charge of many of his works: Samson (c.1613-15), Hercules on the Pyre (c.1620), Apollo Flaying Marsyas (c.1620), for example, and, of course, his many Sebastians. Today, also, writers fall into the trap of assuming Guido’s homosexuality; for example, Richard E. Spear, an authority on the life and work of the artist, states in his excellent The ‘Divine’ Guido: Religion, Sex, Money and Art in the World of Guido Reni65 his ‘suspicion…that he suffered from the stigma [sic] of homosexual desire.’66 Spear’s assumption seems to be based upon the artist’s youthful aversion to rough horse-play, his physical beauty and ‘soft’ demeanour, and his devotion to his mother!67 While it is true that Reni never married and that in his day he ‘was thought to be a virgin [because] he always looked like marble when observing so many beautiful girls who served as his models,’68 any speculation regarding his sexual desires must remain simply that. There are seven paintings of Sebastian ascribed to either Reni or his pupils, who at one time numbered in the hundreds;69 and there are several doubtful, inferior, copies by lesser hands. In 2008, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, staged the exhibition: The Agony and the Ecstasy: Guido Reni's Saint Sebastians, which was intended to showcase the Reni in their own collection and to bring the other key Reni Sebastians together for the first time.70 These seven paintings (figs. 23-28 and fig.30) are of fluctuating technical quality and we can speculate on the varying degrees of the master’s hand involved in the creation of each; arguably, the
Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff), Courier Dover Publications, 2002, p. 111. So vociferously did Ruskin attack the National Gallery for its purchase of two paintings by Reni that they bought no other seicento work for another fifty years. 65 Richard E. Spear, The ‘Divine’ Guido: Religion, Sex, Money and Art in the World of Guido Reni, Yale, 1997. 66 Ibid, p.51. 67 Ibid, p.52. 68 Carlo Malvasia, quoted in Spear, p.51. 69 Reni was an inveterate gambler, so it was in his interest to keep up a high level of production. As well as the multiple Saint Sebastians there are many near-identical ‘multiples’ from his studio, including ‘Cleopatras’, ‘Christs’, Crucifixions’ and ‘Flights into Egypt’ etc. 70 in the event, the Louvre picture was deemed too fragile to travel.
64 63

Dulwich’s own Sebastian (fig. 23) and the one in the Genoa collection (fig. 31) are superior works; in fact, the poet James Fenton, who wrote an article about this exhibition states: ‘two of the experts I consulted claim that only two of them are by Reni: the Genoa painting and the version that belongs to Dulwich, in which the saint's hands are bound behind his back.’71 In any event, it was these two paintings, in particular, that fired the imaginations of Wilde and his contemporaries. In Charles Kinglsey’s Alton Locke, published in 1850, the eponymous narrator, a young tailor, visits the Dulwich Gallery and appears to experience the Stendhal syndrome72 in front of the Reni Sebastian (fig. 23):
Timidly, but eagerly, I went up to the picture, and stood entranced before it. It was Guido’s St. Sebastian… [T]he very defects of the picture, its exaggeration, its theatricality, were especially calculated to catch the eye of a boy awaking out of the narrow dullness of Puritanism. The breadth and vastness of light and shade upon those manly limbs, so grand and yet so delicate, standing out against the background of lurid night, the helplessness of the bound arms. The arrow quivering in the shrinking side, the upturned brow, the eyes in whose dark depths enthusiastic faith seemed conquering agony and shame, the parted lips, which seemed to ask, like those martyrs in the Revelations, reproachful, half-resigned, ‘O Lord, how long?’…My heart swelled within me, my eyes seemed bursting from my head with the intensity of my gaze, and great tears, I knew not why, rolled slowly down my face.73

He recognises that the image is calculated to awaken something within him, which will enable him to emerge from his Puritanism. Charles Baker suggests that Locke/Kingsley is unconsciously reacting to the homoeroticism of the painting. In a frank analysis, Baker says that Locke is
overwhelmed by emotion: “My heart swelled within me, my eyes seemed bursting from my head with the intensity of my gaze, and great tears, I knew not why, rolled slowly down my face”. Climaxing in “swelling,” “bursting,” and the ejaculation of “great tears,” Alton’s gaze into the martyr’s eyes is another intercourse-like eye-wedlock, here perhaps combined with an anal image, the “dark depths” of Sebastian’s eyes. However, as Alton’s “I knew not why” indicates, the significance of this episode goes unremarked; its eroticism is subsumed in a moment of spiritual transcendence.74

Entirely more ‘knowing’ and self-reflective responses to Reni’s work came from the English writer and photographer Frederic Rolfe (the self-styled Baron Corvo) and Oscar Wilde. They were both entranced by Reni’s twin, three-quarter length Sebastians; one in Rome (fig. 28) and the superior one in Genoa (fig. 31).

James Fenton in The Guardian, Saturday, February 16, 2008. Stendhal syndrome: a psychosomatic condition experienced by individuals exposed to certain particularly beautiful works of art, or a large numbers of artworks in one place. Symptoms may include dizziness, tears, confusion and even hallucination. The condition is named after Stendhal, who described such sensations when in Florence in 1817. 73 Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Macmillan and Co., 1862. pp. 54-55. 74 Charles Barker, ‘Erotic Martyrdom: Kingsley’s Sexuality beyond Sex’, in Victorian Studies, Vol. 44, No. 3, Spring, 2002.


Figure 23. Guido Reni, St Sebastian, early 1630s, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. Figure 24. Guido Reni, St Sebastian, 1617 - 1619, The Prado, Madrid.

Figure 25. Guido Reni, St Sebastian, 1600s, The Louvre, Paris. Figure 26. Guido Reni, St Sebastian, c.1625, Auckland Art Gallery.

Figure 27. Guido Reni, St Sebastian, 1639-1640, Bologna National Art Gallery. Figure 28. Guido Reni, St Sebastian, early 1600s, Pinacotheca Capitolene, Rome.

In 1891, Rolfe wrote ‘Two Sonnets for a Picture of Saint Sebastian the Martyr in the Capitoline Gallery, Rome’. These were published in The Artist magazine and were thought so scandalous that they were instrumental in the ousting of the editor, Charles Kain-Jackson. The second of the sonnets runs as follows:
A Roman soldier-boy, bound to a tree, His strong arms lifted up for sacrifice, His gracious form all stripped of earthly guise Naked, but brave as a young lion can be, Transfixed by arrows he gains the victory; And angels bear before his bright sweet eyes The wreath of amaranth in Paradise, Where he shall put on immortality, And all unashamed because the saints are there, Where God’s eternal gardens gleam and glow Sebastian’s stainless soul no soil doth know The glorious beauty of the youth to bare, And light the Land where fadeless lilies blow With his limbs of flaming whiteness and rayed hair.75

75 In Timothy Smith, Love in Earnest: Some Notes on the Lives and Writings of English ‘Uranian’ Poets from 1889 to 1930, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970, pp. 182-183.

Rolfe’s brave young lion, with his rayed mane, glories unashamedly in his strength and graceful beauty and, although there is a mention of angels waiting to bear him to Paradise, the whole point of the poem seems rather to extol the physical perfection and desirability of the very earthly young man. In1890, Rolfe took a series of photographs of a young companion, Tito Biondi and his friends at play at Lake Nemi, just outside Rome (fig. 29). The photograph of Biondi was perhaps not directly inspired by images of Sebastian, but it is strikingly similar in its depiction of a near-naked youth, against a backdrop of tree trunks with one arm raised, as it is in so many images of the saint.

Figure 29. Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo), Portrait of Tito Biondi at Lake Nemi, 1890.

For Wilde, it was the Genoa Reni which sparked devotion. He first saw the painting as a student in 1877, while passing through Genoa on his way to a holiday in Greece. Shortly afterwards, in the same year, he wrote his first ever art review, for an exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery.76 In this piece, Wilde rhapsodised over a painting by John Stanhope entitled Love and the Maiden (fig. 30), and in particular, the figure of Love, a youth of ethereal beauty. After cursorily mentioning the maiden, Wilde went to a great length in describing the boy, likening him to the Reni Sebastian:
A rose-garland presses the boy's brown curls, and he is clad in a tunic of oriental colours, and delicately sensuous are his face and his bared limbs. His boyish beauty is of that

Published in Dublin University Magazine, 1877. It was at the opening of this exhibition that Wilde famously wore an overcoat made in the shape of a cello.

peculiar type unknown in Northern Europe, but common in the Greek islands, where boys can still be found as beautiful as the Charmides of Plato. Guido's ‘St Sebastian’ in the Palazzo Rosso at Genoa is one of these boys. 77

Figure 30. John Stanhope, Love and the Maiden, 1877, Schaffer collection, Sydney, Australia.

He goes on to praise the ‘bloom and vitality and radiance of this adolescent beauty’, describing the whole picture as being ‘full of grace’. The figure of Love, in Stanhope’s painting is a sort of grown up (sexually mature) version of cherubic Eros. But, as was his wont, Wilde managed to ignore the undeniably heterosexual intention underpinning the image, in order to give a reading with paederastic focus. As well as Love’s physical likeness to Reni’s Sebastian, there may have been a further connection for Wilde, which is to do with the notion of penetration; in the Stanhope painting, Love is holding a bow and is therefore the active figure, in a reversal of the dynamic of the Reni painting. When seen in concert, as Wilde suggests, the two pictures present a beautiful youth passive and a beautiful youth active, neatly encompassing the same suggestion of homosexual versatility I spoke of earlier in connection with the Bronzino Sebastian (fig. 8). By happy coincidence, in an example of life imitating art, there exists a photograph of Wilde’s sometime lover, the poet John Gray ‘standing in a garden wearing an immaculate white suit, white shoes and boater, meaningfully shooting an arrow from a bow’.78 In 1881, Wilde visited Keats’ grave in Rome, and wrote the sonnet, ‘The Grave of Keats’, which includes the following lines about the consumptive poet: ‘The

Quoted in Iain Ross’s article, ‘Charmides and The Sphinx: Wilde's engagement with Keats’, Victorian Poetry Volume 46, Number 4, Winter, 2008. 78 Fiona MacCarthy, ‘Falling Out With Oscar’ in The Guardian, Saturday, August 30, 2008.


youngest of the Martyrs here is lain, / Fair as Sebastian, and as foully slain’.79 Wilde added an explanatory note:
As I stood beside the mean grave of this divine boy, I thought of him as a Priest of Beauty slain before his time; and the vision of [Guido’s] Saint Sebastian came before my eyes as I saw him at Genoa, a lovely brown boy, with crisp, clustering hair and red lips, bound by his evil enemies to a tree and, though pierced by arrows, raising his eyes with divine, impassioned gaze towards the Eternal Beauty of the opening Heavens.80

Figure 31. Guido Reni, St. Sebastian, Palazzo Rosso, Genoa, early 1600s.

As Richard Kaye writes:
St. Sebastian assumed a key place at the center of a nineteenth-century cultural debate on the appropriate role of a Christian hero. The martyr fostered associations of feminized masculinity, homoerotic desire, working-class consciousness, and sado-masochism, all seemingly sanctioned by religious faith.81

Each of these associations was crystallised, also, within Oscar Wilde, who became the homosexual martyr par excellence on the 25th May, 1895 when he
79 80

Quoted in Kopelson, p.29. Ibid, p.29.

Richard A. Kaye, ‘”Determined Raptures”: St. Sebastian and the Victorian Discourse of Decadence’, Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 27, No. 1, 1999, pp. 269-70.


was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years' imprisonment with hard labour.82 The establishment had been out to get Wilde for some time and this is indicated by the publication, thirteen years before any trial, in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, of a caricature on the likely outcome of the writer’s continuing adherence to knee breeches (fig. 32).83 On the left is Wilde as effeminate dandy; on the right, a shorn Wilde, his entire body studded with the arrows of prison uniform. The transubstantiation was already complete; Wilde had assumed ‘sainthood’.

Figure 32. Caricature of Oscar Wilde from The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, July 21, 1882.

82 An indication of the vehemence with which the case was pursued, and the venom that was aimed at Wilde, is that the judge said the sentence was 'totally inadequate for a case such as this', even though it was the maximum sentence allowed for the charge under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. For a detailed examination of the trial and of Wilde’s time in prison, see Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, Century, 2003. 83 This image was also published in Kaye, ‘Determined Raptures’, p. 297.

For they know not what they do Wilde’s trial and imprisonment sent shock waves throughout queer England and beyond. In the wake of the sentencing, many gay men quietly crossed the Channel in fear of prosecution and ruin. Many more retreated into themselves, swathed in the assumed disguise of heterosexual ‘normality’.
The downfall of Oscar Wilde…created a public image for the ‘homosexual’, a term now coming into use…The Wilde trials were in effect labeling processes of a most explicit kind drawing a clear border between acceptable and abhorrent behaviour.84

Suddenly, there was a very public face to this private ‘abhorrent’ behaviour. Naturally, queer aesthetes pictured themselves in Wilde’s martyr-position and some took the next step and pictured themselves literally as martyrs. Adept at assuming the various disguises of imposed heterosexuality, it was a short step for queer artists to extend the play-acting into aesthetic fantasy.
…Christian martyrdoms presented attractive if exaggerated analogies to their own human torments (not the least of which…was the necessity to be ever more discreet about one’s sexual tastes in the wake of the Oscar Wilde scandal).85

In Sicily, for instance, the gay, expatriate Prussian photographer Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden made several self-portraits in Christ-like costume and pose. 86 In Boston, the wealthy gay photographer and publisher, F. Holland Day photographed himself as the crucified Christ (figs. 33-35).87 For verisimilitude, before the shoot, he grew his hair and beard long and starved himself for several weeks so that his body would be suitably emaciated; the specially built cross was imported from Syria and ‘nominally constructed to be as historically correct as possible’.88 He was to revisit the subject several times over the next few years, such was his identification with suffering martyrdom. ‘Clearly he saw himself as someone ‘on a cross’, either emotionally or as an artist’.89 These images of Christian iconography were ‘striking examples of barely mediated homoeroticism’.90 One image from this series came in for particular censure; Study for the Crucifixion (fig. 36) features a young naked male model (not Day, this time) languorously posed in front of an all but invisible cross. In this image

Jeffrey Weeks, Sex Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800, Longman, 1989, p. 103 Allen Ellenzweig, The Homoerotic Photograph: Male Images from Durieu/Delacroix to Mapplethorpe, Columbia University Press, 1992, p. 51. 86 Baron Willhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931): Prussian photographer who, in 1876, settled in Taormina, Sicily in order that the dry climate might alleviate the symptoms of his tuberculosis. Von Gloeden made a lucrative career photographing the local youths naked, in ‘classical’ settings. These images were sold to well-heeled gay tourists, for whom Taormina was an essential destination on any Mediterranean tour. Oscar Wilde visited the baron upon his release from prison and was in possession of at least one photograph from the baron’s studio. At the time of his death, Von Gloeden left 3,000 glass photograph plates; tragically in 1936, Mussolini’s fascist police destroyed 2,500 of these, alleging they were pornography. 87 Day counted Aubrey Beardsley as a friend and became a major patron. He had also met Wilde whom he emulated in manner and dress. Day was an early American voice to claim photography as a valid art form. 88 Emmanuel Cooper, Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography, Routledge, 1995, p. 160. 89 Ibid, p. 160. 90 Ellenzweig, p. 51.


Figure 33. F. Holland Day, Crucifixion with Roman Soldiers, 1896 Figure 34. F. Holland Day, Crucifixion, 1896.

Figure 35. F. Holland Day, The Seven Words of Christ, 1898.

the subject seems to have been much more about male nudity than the purported religious theme, and for once Day veers from truth-to-subject because the model is clearly much younger than the early-thirties usually accepted as the age when Jesus went to his death. Writing about this image, Allen Ellenzweig remarks:
Such a pose is now almost a cliché for sexual ardor: arms upraised, head slightly thrown back to reveal the throat, torso off-center, hips tilted, and knees bent.91


Ellenzweig, p. 51.

Figure 36. Frederick Holland Day, Study for the Crucifixion c.1898.

Day also found Saint Sebastian to have been a fruitful subject, and made a series of photographs on the theme between 1905 and 1907. The model for these images was a shoe-shine boy, Nicola Giancola, whose sensuous Mediterranean beauty lent an exotic element to the enterprise. The working-class youth became a favourite model for a while and as well as appearing in several images of Saint Sebastian, was also photographed in the guise of a spearthrowing storm-god; several times as Orpheus92 carrying a home-made lyre (figs. 41 and 42); and as a sultry, generally ‘mythological’ youth in a feathered hat (fig. 36). In this image, the direction of the model’s sideways glance is taken up by the line of the feather which curves down past his shoulder to point directly at his nipple.
What Edwin Becker [has written elsewhere] applies here too: The ‘image has been carefully cropped, so that a nipple is just delicately visible at the lower edge.’ The nipple is the point of the picture. The mythology is just a decoy.93

92 Orpheus, a legendary poet and musician from Greek mythology, was a popular subject for Victorian and Edwardian queer aesthetes. After the death of Eurydice, his much loved wife, Orpheus shunned women and would only sleep with boys. He was torn to pieces by the Thracian Maenads for bringing homosexuality to Thrace. 93 Sarah Boxer: a brief article in ArtForum, March, 2001, about an exhibition of Day’s work at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Figure 36. Frederick Holland Day, Youth in Winged Hat and Robe, 1907.

One could draw exactly the same conclusions about the Perugino painting discussed earlier (fig.10). Day agonised over his attraction to men below his own class; in a letter to Horace Copeland, his partner in the publishing house Copeland and Day, who shared Day’s tastes in young, predominantly heterosexual, working-class men, he wrote: ‘is it right to adopt those of another class than our own?’.94 Some of these ‘adoptions’ were also purely patriarchal in nature, as was the case with the thirteen-year-old Lebanese immigrant Kahlil Gibran whom Day recognised as particularly gifted and whom he encouraged in literary and artistic pursuits, introducing him to the work of Blake and his friend Beardsley, amongst others. Gibran later went on to write the enormously popular book of poetic essays, The Prophet (1923). In Nude Archer, from 1905, one of several with this subject, Day prefigures his Sebastian works. All the elements are there: the lithe, naked youth (once again, Giancola, anticipating his later role as the martyr); the sense of generalised antique mythology; and the bow being aimed for a killer shot. Here, however, the archer’s intent is unclear; he aims into the heavens as if to bring down some
94 Emmanuel Cooper, The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West, Routledge, 1994, p.82

Figure 38. F. Holland Day, Nude Archer, 1905. Figure 39. F. Holland Day, St. Sebastian, 1906.

Figure 40. F. Holland Day, Nude Youth With Laurel Leaves Standing Against Rocks, 1907. Figure 41. F. Holland Day, St. Sebastian, 1907.

celestial quarry. The subsequent images of Sebastian and associated nudes, which again feature Nicola Giancola, (figs. 38-41), are altogether more earthy, even sexual in effect; as with his Study for the Crucifixion, this seems to have been Day’s main purpose. Again we see the arms thrown up, the head tilted back in erotic surrender. Where there are arrows, these are rather lack-lustre in effect; in the image from 1907, for example (fig. 41), the single, unconvincing arrow, with its squiggle of artificial blood, serves merely to draw our attention to Giancola’s right nipple. In this series we again see at work Day’s judicious cropping of imagery; in Nude Youth with Laurel Leaves (fig. 40) the bottom edge of the image has been trimmed to within a tantalising millimetre of the genitals. This demands the viewer’s unconscious participation; we ‘see’ the genitals because they are not visible. The effect operates in the same way as we have seen in Renaissance paintings, with their judicious crotch-coverings but as this image is photographic and therefore ‘real’, there is a more heightened erotic sense. Richard A. Kaye believes that Saint Sebastian’s sudden popularity with Victorian and Edwardian photographers was because that medium had become important in recording the recent dead for posterity. And, just as it had been in the Renaissance, the ‘arrow-pierced martyr allowed Victorian writers and artists to conceive of the male nude in sensually rich terms usually accorded female

Figure 42. F. Holland Day, Nude Youth with Lyre, 1907. Figure 43. F. Holland Day, Nude Youth with Lyre Sitting on Rock, 1907.

Figure 44. Oscar Rejlander, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, c.1867.

figures in painting.’95 Such sensuality is certainly indicated in Oscar Rejlander’s The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (fig. 44). The Swedish photographer had settled in England and became known as the father of art photography; he pioneered social-protest photography and made many images of street-children and prostitutes (which were sometimes one and the same). His Sebastian shows the saint at the start of his ordeal, before the first arrows have been loosed. One Victorian critic, A. H. Wall, spoke highly of this image because the model appeared to have been ‘one who received a thorough gymnastic training’, with ‘muscles so clean-cut and well-developed’.96 Rejlander’s intention was no doubt to suggest pictorially the inner strength of the saint through his outward masculine appearance. Clearly, in his day, the model in the Rejlander photograph stood out as unusual; indeed, there is a thoroughly present-day aspect to his chiselled body, which would come to be ubiquitous under the mirror-balls and lasers of late-twentieth-century gay dance parties and discos; the ecstasy chemically, rather than supernaturally induced. As I have mentioned, by the late 1800s homosexuality was entering into the medical textbooks, pathologised as an illness. The homosexual was now a recognisable, abhorrent and sick entity.
[T]he idea of homosexuality as an identity dates, like the word ‘homosexuality’ itself, from the late nineteenth century, so much so that some earlier practitioners of sodomy could perceive their homosexual acts as distinct from themselves and their own sexual identity...
95 96

Kaye, ‘”Determined Raptures”, p. 281. A. H. Wall, ‘Rejlander’s Photographic Art Studies’, Photographic News (London), October 8, 1886, pp. 652-653.

The ‘homosexual’ male, either as a result of congenital ‘inversion’ or moral ‘perversion,’ demonstrated behaviors culturally designated as female, possibly including [and this is a male heterosexual fear that continues to the present day] sexual desire for ‘normal’ males.

[An] explanation for the correlations linking Sebastian with homosexual desire is related to developments in late-Victorian sexual theory. As a martyr with long-standing associations with disease…Sebastian appears to have become a fitting embodiment of the transition whereby homosexual desire, once a theologically constructed sin, was increasingly understood in the late-Victorian epoch as medical illness.98

Sebastian was the perfect queer icon for the uncertainties of the closing century and the dawning of the new; ‘simultaneously sacred and heretical in meaning [and] isomorphic with turn-of-the-century scientific, medical and anthropological representation of the individual’.99
With impassioned if veiled enthusiasm, late-Victorian writers [and artists] of selfconsciously homosexual allegiances submitted to images of St. Sebastian as a coded means of articulating same-sex desire.100

The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune In a photographic self-portrait from the early years of the twentieth-century (fig. 45), the Estonian aristocrat, Elisar von Kupffer,101 leans insouciantly against a tree in a garden setting; one arm is raised, the other is behind his back. He gazes dreamily at the viewer, his docile face framed first by his perfect coiffure, then by a very artificial-looking halo. His pampered white body gleams, pale in the morning sun. The merest flap of material covers his genitals; the thong which holds this tiny apron in place juts obliquely from his lower abdomen and casts its shadow on his slightly raised left thigh. A single arrow emerges from his ribs. The image is suffused with the overweening narcissism that informed all of Kupffer’s visual work. Kupffer had a horror of the natural aging process and sometimes photographed himself in the clothes of young boys, in order to later make paintings from the images. At the outbreak of the World War One, Kupffer fled to Locarno, Switzerland, where he remained for the rest of his life. Here, he and his lover, the philosopher Eduard von Mayer (1872-1960), developed an esoteric, quasi-religious doctrine called Klarismus (Clarity), which was built around ideas of gleichgeschlechtliche Liebe, or love of the same sex. Their luxurious villa,
97 Jay Losey and William Dean Brewer, Mapping Male Sexuality: Nineteenth-Century England, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000, p.283. 98 Kaye, ‘Losing His Religion’, p.89. 99 Ibid, p.89. 100 Kaye, ‘Determined Raptures’, p. 291. 101 Elisar von Kupffer (1872-1942), Estonia-born, German aristocrat: artist, poet, historian and playwright. In 1899 Kupffer published Lieblingminne und Freundesliebe in der Weltliteratur, an important anthology of historical poems with homosexual themes. The first of its kind, the anthology was put together, in part, as a protest at the treatment of Wilde in England. The poems came from Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, Japan, the Arab world and Renaissance Italy etc. Many had been bowdlerised by homophobic censors and, during translation, needed to be restored to their original queer intention by transposing female with male pronouns. In 1908, whilst living in Florence, he published a book about Sodoma.

the Sanctuarium Artis Elisarion in Locarno, Switzerland…was a temple and a museum in one. The centre of this miniature paradise on earth was a round room whose walls consisted of a monumental painting by Kupffer, the Klarwelt der Seigen…eighty-four [actually eighty-five] strikingly similar naked ephebic youths in various positions.102

Figure 45. Elisar von Kupffer, Elisar von Kupffer as Saint Sebastian, early 1900s. Figure 46. Elisar von Kupffer, Saint Sebastian, undated (early 1900s?).

The youths are ‘strikingly similar’ because nearly all of the eighty-five are highly flattering, romanticised portraits of Kupffer himself. Within this astonishingly kitsch painting (fig.48), the ephebes cavort naked against a gelati-coloured, fantasy landscape, variously clasping garlands of flowers, sitting on a water lilies as butterflies float by, kissing each other under a pale rainbow; each wears a smug, soporific expression and a set of infant genitals. The cloying, gayschoolboy fantasy ‘evoke[s] the androgynous figure of disguised adolescents, transported to a homosexual paradise’.103 That it is a paradise populated almost solely by Kupffer, rejuvenated and endlessly replicated, is perhaps revealing.

102 Harry Oosterhuis, Homosexuality and Male Bonding in Pre-Nazi Germany: the Youth Movement, the Gay Movement, and Male Bonding Before Hitler's Rise, Haworth Press, 1991, p.90 103 Florence Tamagne, A History of Homosexuality in Europe, 1919-1939, Algora Publishing, 2004 p.199

Figure 47. Elisar von Kupffer, Saint Sebastian, undated.

Figure 48. Elisar von Kupffer, Die Klarwelt der Seigen (detail), early 1920s.

Kupffer made several paintings of Saint Sebastian; one is a direct transcription of the illustrated photograph (fig. 47). In a rough sketch for another painting of the saint, once again featuring Kupffer in the role, and typically depicting a much younger version of himself (fig. 46), we see a back view of a schoolboy-saint, tethered to a branch by his left wrist. A misfired arrow is already lodged in the tree trunk above him. Kupffer/Sebastian turns his head expectantly, engaging the viewer/archer with one imploring eye; some sort of toga is draped over his shoulder, like a towel that a bather might carry on the way to the water. The real target for the archers is the plump buttocks, proffered so coquettishly. Kupffer/Sebastian has here been reduced to the sum of his sexual predilections, which have been presented in no uncertain terms. The success or otherwise of the drawing depends upon Kupffer’s assumption that the viewer is male and, moreover, that he is gay. It is clear that the image was made for a specific coterie of like-minded ‘aesthetes’ who would be unlikely to mistake the image’s frank meaning. Due perhaps to his privileged social standing, Kupffer was one of the very few who felt able to speak out against the burgeoning trend to ‘medicalise’ the condition of homosexuality. He ‘rejected both Magnus Hirschfeld’s and Freud’s doctrines of homosexuality because, Kupffer thought, they falsely somaticized or psychologized the essentially ethical and aesthetic basis of homoerotic attractions’.104 But then of course Kupffer was shielded by his wealth from the harsher reality faced by ordinary gay men. Ensconced in the highly rarefied atmosphere of the Sanctuarium Artis Elisarion, on the picturesque shore of Lake Maggiore, in tolerant, neutral Switzerland, he dreamed of a brave new paederastic world order, based upon a highly romanticised, selective understanding of Ancient Greek society. In 1899 Kupffer had published Lieblingminne und Freundesliebe in der Weltliteratur, an important anthology of historical poems with homosexual themes. The first of its kind, the anthology was put together, in part, as a protest at the treatment of Wilde in England. The poems came from Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, Japan, the Arab world and Renaissance Italy etc. Many had been bowdlerised by homophobic censors and, during translation, needed to be restored to their original queer intention by transposing female with male pronouns. In 1908, whilst living in Florence, he had published a book about Sodoma. Fortunately, he will be remembered for his literary contributions to the queer canon, which are considerable, rather than his lurid visual fantasies. In a photographic self-portrait from 1913, the French poet Jean Reutlinger enacts Sebastian’s impending torment (figure 49). On a gently sloping hillside, Reutlinger’s wiry body inclines against a leaning tree trunk; in the middle distance a line of fir trees also tilts to the left, following the direction of his heavenward gaze. The image is psychologically troubling, even neurotic, in effect; his genitals are neatly hidden, almost clinically, beneath a bandage-like fold of cloth. Without the signifying arrows, he could as easily be an inmate in the grounds of a

Michael Camille and Adrian Rifkin, Other Objects of Desire: Collectors and Collecting Queerly, Wiley-Blackwell,

2001, p.87.

madhouse. The composition is also skewed and unstable; everything in the image is being sucked up into the top left corner; the area denoted as heaven by the locus of Reutlinger’s gaze. It is as if this paradise that Reutlinger/Sebastian stares up at has become a vacuum and everything is being drawn towards it: God as Black Hole. This is perhaps appropriate; the photograph was taken in the year before the commencement of World War One, in which Reutlinger himself was killed. Unintentionally, it forecasts the grave crisis of faith that would shortly descend upon Europe, whose million sons perished beneath a seemingly absent God. And Sebastian had now, along with his other duties, assumed the symbology of personal neurosis.

Figure 49. Jean Reutlinger, Photographic Self Portrait as Saint Sebastian, 1913.

I sing the steady aim of your arrows

In 1923, Salvador Dalí met Federico Garcia Lorca at the university hostel, the Residencia de Estudiantes, in Madrid, where they were students. Lorca was gay and twenty-five, the shy, virginal Dalí was twenty-one; they soon came to refer to each other, correctly as it turned out, as geniuses. Their intense relationship lasted until they fell out in 1929, when the film Un Chien Andalou, a collaboration between Dalí and Luis Buñuel, was released; Lorca thought the film was about him and was most likely also jealous of the alliance between Dalí and Buñuel, who was known to have been disgusted by Lorca’s sexuality. There has been recently renewed interest in the intense relationship between Lorca and Dalí. From their letters to one another there is no question that Lorca was in love with Dalí, and it seems also clear that Dalí reciprocated this love, at least on an emotional level. He included Lorca’s face in at least five canvases in the early years of their relationship, such as Honey is Sweeter Than Blood, which, as well as Dalí’s own disembodied profile, features Lorca’s lifeless face superimposed onto the landscape in the lower-left section.105 And even many years after Lorca’s execution, his face appears superimposed on several Dalí landscapes. Dalí wrote to Lorca: ‘Don't fail to write to me - you, the only interesting man I've ever known.’ He ‘referred to himself repeatedly as Lorca's “little son” and sent him drawings, collages, photographs, postcards, and even a florid valentine… stamped “My Beloved Darling.”’106 On another occasion he sent Lorca a postcard of that enduring phallic emblem, the Eiffel Tower, with the inscription, ‘Another hug.’ In March, 1926, Dalí confessed to Lorca that he had spent the whole day re-reading the letters he had sent him; a week later he asked ‘Do you love me?’ For his part, Lorca told a friend that Dalí inspired in him the same pure emotion he felt in the presence of the baby Jesus; a hard act to follow, to be sure! Once, when he had to unexpectedly cut short a holiday the pair was spending together, Lorca recalled, ‘I was on the verge of throwing myself out of the car in order to stay with you (little you) in Cadaques.’ In 1926, Lorca wrote his poignant poem ‘Ode to Salvador Dalí’, which runs, in part:
Oh Salvador Dalí, of the olive-coloured voice! I speak of what your person and your paintings tell me. I do not praise your halting adolescent brush, but I sing the steady aim of your arrows. I sing your fair struggle of Catalan lights, your love of what might be made clear. I sing your astronomical and tender heart, a never-wounded deck of French cards. I sing your restless longing for the statue, your fear of the feelings that await you in the street. I sing the small sea-siren who sings to you, riding her bicycle of corals and conches.
105 This was undoubtedly a reference to Lorca’s habit of assuming the role of his own corpse. At the Residencia, Dalí had often heard Lorca refer to his own death. He had also witnessed the poet throw himself onto the floor or onto a bed, feigning rigor mortis and saying, ‘Hey everyone, this is how I‘ll look when I die!’ – described in Stainton. 106 Leslie Stainton, Lorca: A Dream of Life, Bloomsbury, 1998, p.138

But above all I sing a common thought that joins us in the dark and golden hours. The light that blinds our eyes is not art. Rather it is love, friendship, crossed swords.

Lorca was well aware of the dangers of declaring his homosexuality. He knew of Wilde’s destruction; he had read Wilde’s De Profundis and his copy of the article was heavily annotated with his own thoughts on the tragedy. He was also aware of Spain’s severe views on homosexuality: ‘The Arabs who had settled in Andalusia had sanctioned it. But the Inquisition had persecuted homosexuals, and the Catholic Church continued to regard them as deviants of the worst sort’.107 Both Lorca and Dalí would also have been aware of the fervently homophobic stance of the burgeoning Surrealist movement, to which Dalí, at least, was keen to be associated.108 Conscious of his homosexuality since early childhood, Lorca recalled, ‘When I eventually realized my preference I came to understand that what I liked, others thought perverse.’109
To Lorca, [Dalí’s] extravagant, adoring letters were a godsend. But Lorca wanted more. In the summer of 1925, in the weeks following his visit [with the artist] to Cadaques, he talked anxiously of his desire to see Dalí, and in letters to their mutual friend Benjamin Palencia, a painter, he hinted at the depth of his attachment to ‘Salvadorcito’...Through Palencia, Dalí had promised to send him a pair of his paintings. ‘They will live in my house next to my heart,’ Lorca said.110

Details are sketchy, but at some point Lorca tried to physically consummate the intense relationship he and Dalí had. This was not successful; as Dalí tells it, nearly fifty years later:
He was homosexual, as everyone knows, and crazily in love with me. He tried to screw me twice... I was extremely annoyed, because I wasn’t homosexual, and I wasn’t interested in giving in. Besides, it hurt. So nothing came of it. But I felt awfully flattered vis-à-vis the prestige. Deep down, I felt that he was a great poet and that I did owe him a tiny bit of the Divine Dalí’s asshole.111

A distance of half a century is certainly time enough to re-order the truth, and one senses that Dalí is rather glossing over the incident in order to re-establish hetero-cred. The lurid picture of poor, put-upon, Dalí reluctantly giving in to the rapacious, love-struck Lorca seems too narrow and one-sided an explanation, particularly given the evidence of the correspondence between these two very close young men. But whatever the circumstances, the event proved to be a creative catalyst for both of them; and the focus of this creativity, with its subtext of martyrdom and (homosexual) suffering was, naturally enough, Saint Sebastian. It is a happy coincidence that Sebastian was also the patron saint of
Stainton, p.139 Andre Breton, for instance, was obsessively homophobic and he banned discussion of homosexuality at any Surrealist meetings, accusing homosexuals of ‘mental and moral deficiency,’ guilty of ‘paralysing all enterprises that I respect.’ For a detailed analysis of the deeply entrenched homophobia within the movement, see Richard Easton’s ‘Canonical Criminalizations: Homosexuality Art History, Surrealism and Abjection’ in Differences, Vol. 4, 1992. 109 Quoted in Staunton, p.139. 110 Staunton, p.138 111 Alain Bosquet, Conversations with Dalí, Translated from the French by Joachim Neugroschel, Ubu Classics, 2003, pp.19 (Original publication was by E.P. Dutton & Co, NY, 1969).
108 107

Cadaqués, the quaint fishing village on the Costa Brava, with which Dalí had fallen in love as a child, and where he and Lorca had spent idyllic summer holidays.

Figure 50. Dalí and Lorca at an amusement park, 1925.

Edward Hirsch writes:
The correspondence between Lorca and Dalí suggests a nervous awareness of the homoerotic and sadomasochistic aspects underlying Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom, which was somehow mixed up in their own…relationship to each other. Much was at stake both personally and aesthetically when they fenced over their competing images of the saint pierced by arrows.112

We may feel that the rather timid ‘nervous awareness’ suggested by Hirsch seems too coy (not to mention heterocentric) a description, conjuring as it does the image of trembling ingénues, out of their depth in the murky waters of homosexuality. From what the pair wrote to each other about the subject, and from the works they created on this theme, their agenda seems to have been more knowing and cathartically directed, as each tried to plead the case for and against homosexual consummation. The saint became an equally identifiable icon for both of the young men, one that could easily be imbued with the idea of their own particular suffering: for Dalí, the physical pain of being penetrated by a friend he needed emotionally but not physically; for Lorca the emotional pain of a longing that he stoically endured. Dalí sometimes signed letters to Lorca, ‘Your Saint Sebastian,’ and in a letter to Dalí, Lorca makes a coded reference to
112 Edward Hirsch, The Demon and the Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003, p.21

sodomy: ‘Saint Sebastian’s arrows are made of steel,’ he wrote, ‘but the difference between you and me is that you see them as firmly fixed and robust, short arrows that can’t come undone, and I see them as long…at the moment of the wound. Your Saint Sebastian of ivory [sometimes translated as ‘marble’] contrasts with mine of flesh who is dying all the time, and that’s how it must be.’113 Dalí wrote a long prose-poem about the saint, which he published in the Catalan journal, L’Amic de les Art, and which he dedicated to Lorca; Dalí told him, ‘In my “Saint Sebastian” I remember you, and sometimes I think he is you...we’ll see if Saint Sebastian turns out to be you.’ Even Dalí’s younger sister, Ana Marie, was in on the pair’s secret, exhorting Lorca not to show the postcard she had sent him to ‘Saint Sebastian.’

Figure 51. Federico Garcia Lorca, San Sebastian, india ink on paper, 1927.

Consider the drawing that Lorca made in 1927 (fig. 51). The stylised, Cocteauesque image of the beleaguered saint has been reduced to its most elemental parts, mainly due to the fact that, unlike Dalí, Lorca was not a natural draughtsman: six actual arrows, six more-simplified arrows, a single eye and a central target shape. Here, I want to focus on this central motif, which has three possible readings. First, it has an undoubted visual reference to a target. Secondly, it appears in the position of a pursed, kissing mouth under Sebastian’s eye, framed by the dark entry-points of the arrows (made by bleeding the penpoint into the paper), which suggest something of a jaw-line. But the third, oblique, reference is its resemblance to an anus; and this is the most

Staunton, p.170.

appropriate, given specific taunting comments that Dalí had made in letters to Lorca about the unattainable Sebastian’s and by extension, his own. Consider the following: ‘[how well] tied he was to the column and how solid his back was. Didn’t you ever think how strange it is that his ass doesn’t have a single wound?’114 There are twelve arrows altogether in the drawing, but only the arrows pointing upwards are accorded feathers; the upper arrows represent a more generalised idea of ‘arrow’. Seemingly free-standing and erect, the lower six, phallic arrows retain their functionality, each pointing up towards the target/anus and each coming close, but missing its mark. Reading only Sebastian’s face in the image, Cecilia Cavanaugh writes that ‘the simplicity of the eye/mouth configuration is as gripping and eloquent as any other painting of this suffering victim.’115 But much more eloquent is the image of Lorca’s and Dalí’s own personal suffering, embodied here in this sparse psychosexual drawing.

Figure 52. Federico Garcia Lorca, Ecce Homo, 1927.

Another drawing, Ecce Homo (fig. 52), which Lorca made in the same year, continues the theme. Traditionally, works of art entitled Ecce Homo have depicted a tethered Christ standing before Pontius Pilate, but here Lorca has swapped one martyr for another. Again he has focussed on the head, which we see fractured and in profile. It appears to be wearing a hat or, more likely, a halo, tilted back at a jaunty angle. Tears fall from the eye, which are matched by the scattered blotches of ink/blood. As in the previous image, there are both ‘functional’ arrows and ‘suggestive’ arrows: a small pictogram arrow sits at shoulder level, pointing diagonally upwards to a blotch; another arrow is picked
114 Christopher Maurer, ed. and trans., Sebastian’s Arrows: Letters and Mementos of Salvador Dalí and Federico Garcia Lorca, Swan Isle Press, Chicago, 2004, p.22 115 Cecilia J. Cavanaugh, Lorca's Drawings and Poems: Forming the Eye of the Reader, Bucknell

University Press, 1995, p.59

out in dots and points towards the ear, which is intriguingly marked with the measures one-to-six inches, like a curled ruler. The most important arrow, complete with feathers, dominates the drawing. It is positioned obliquely, at the top of the drawing, and has found its mark; an open wound. But, situated as it is, well above the head, this is a thought-arrow of longing.

Figure 53. Salvador Dalí, San Sebastian, newspaper collage on a letter to Lorca, 1926.

On page one of a several-page letter to Lorca (fig. 53), Dalí included a newspaper collage. The illustration had originally advertised ‘Sor Virginia’ poultices and featured a moustachioed, bare-chested, he-man type with rolled up trouser legs, swathed in the product.116 Dalí drew a halo about the figure’s head and wrote ‘San Sebastian’ next to his right thigh; and with these additions, the once-nonchalant, arms-behind-the-back, pose now had the sinister reading of his being tethered to a post. The medicinal intention of the original image imbued Dalí’s new version with a promise/threat of wellness/sickness and neatly encapsulated the physical and psychological predicament in which he found himself.


The surrealist in Dalí was undoubtedly attracted to the bizarre conjoining of the varying signifiers within the image because he recycled it a number of times within his paintings over the years, and it also appeared on the invitation to his exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery, New York, in 1934.

Figure 53. Salvador Dalí, Project for a Theatre Setting based on the Myth of San Sebastian, 1939.

For Dalí, the enduring image of Sebastian recurred at intervals throughout his career, as did images of Lorca himself, as thoughts of his relationship with the poet resurfaced. In Project for a Theatre Setting based on the Myth of San Sebastian, from 1939 (fig. 53), we see a seven-tier tower of boxes, upon which is superimposed a double image of naked Sebastian, one on each visible side of the stack. Broken arrows stud the sides of the boxes and blood trickles down the sides to pool on the ground. Each box has a lock and key, signifying the secretive nature of the image for Dalí as well as an indication of how he had grappled with its personalised meaning. A faceless figure turns a key in one of the locks, but it is unclear whether he is revealing the secret or locking it securely away. Dalí made two ink sketches of the saint in the 1940s. Both of these feature a landscape reminiscent of that in Sodoma’s painting; indeed, the tree in the 1946 image is almost identical in position and formation to Sodoma’s tree. In this picture (fig. 55), Dalí has allowed a runnel of ink to describe the left side of the saint’s body; it is suggestive of the martyr’s blood as it runs down the centre of the paper. In the earlier image (fig.54), Sebastian is depicted as an attenuated, androgyne; the extravagantly plumed arrows emphasise the general louche

Figure 54. Salvador Dalí, Saint Sebastian, 1942. Figure 55. Salvador Dalí, Saint Sebastian Pierced by Arrows, 1946.

effect of the picture. In this image, which we may read as self-referential, Dalí encapsulates his heterosexual anxiety about Lorca’s sexual advances. For Dalí, with his Spanish machismo, the once male figure (now penetrated) exists as neither male nor female; even the identifying, engendering facial features have been blotted out with ink. Lorca was arrested in 1936, and shot by members of Spain’s fascist Falange movement, whose black and red flag, in an example of dark synchronicity, featured a brace of arrows (fig 56).

Figure 56. Flag of Spain’s fascist Falange movement

‘Cut this hideous story out of her brain’ In 1948 Tennessee Williams wrote the poem, San Sebastiano de Sodoma, which, as the title tells us, took as its inspiration Sodoma’s painting discussed above (fig.18). Williams chose to adhere to the re-imagining of the legend, which had been steadily gaining popularity amongst gay aesthetes, namely, that Sebastian was the lover of Diocletian, the emperor who had ordered his execution. This version of events lent the story a subtext of bitchy gay powerplay. At the end of the poem, Williams wonders (along with the mother of God), whether this rough-trade Sebastian is really suitable for entry into heaven; he clearly regarded the boy/saint as potential trouble.
How did Saint Sebastian die? Arrows pierced his throat and thigh which only knew, before that time, the dolors of a concubine. Near above him, hardly over, hovered his gold martyr's crown. Even Mary from Her tower of heaven leaned a little down and as she leaned, She raised a corner of a cloud through which to spy. Sweetly troubled Mary murmured as She watched the arrows fly. And as the cup that was profaned gave up its sweet, intemperate wine, all the golden bells of heaven praised an emperor's concubine. Mary, leaning from her tower of heaven, dropped a tiny flower but, privately, she must have wondered if it were indeed wise to let this boy in Paradise?

Having identified Sodoma’s Sebastian as gay, Williams seems to have become fixated on the image and upon the legend, generally. The saint’s role as gay martyr was of particular significance to him. In his poem, Williams
equates the martyrdom of St. Sebastian with the sexual acts of fellatio and sodomy. The poem's St. Sebastian is also pierced with phallic arrows in "throat and thigh," as Mary plays the role of voyeur, raising "a corner / of a cloud through which to spy." In the poem's climax, the Eucharistic chalice becomes the desecrated anal "cup," which, when pierced in an erotic act, releases its "sweet, intemperate wine," a profane analog to the communal rite.117

Williams was ambivalent about his homosexuality, as were the majority of gay men in the 1940s. Unlike Sodoma, Williams
took to homosexual guilt as a pig to truffles, seeing himself dragged involuntarily to some lower depths…’deviant satyriasis’ was the accusatory phrase he used to describe his own

Judith J. Thompson, Tennessee Williams’ Plays: Memory, Myth, and Symbol, New York: Peter Lang, 1989, p.


sexual activities as a young man, thereby rating his sexual desires with the bestial and demonic.118

Similarly, the gay men who appear in his plays are closeted and tortured by their sexuality; they enter into unsatisfactory, destructive heterosexual marriages (Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof); they commit suicide upon discovery of their guilty secret (Blanche’s off-stage husband in A Streetcar Named Desire); they are brutally murdered (Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer). There are themes of mental instability and neurosis throughout his work; Williams himself suffered from depression for much of his adult life, later becoming addicted to alcohol, amphetamines and barbiturates. Williams’ personal interest in Saint Sebastian was abiding; a decade after penning the Sodoma poem, he wrote the play, Suddenly Last Summer (1958), which had as its central (though unseen) character, a decadent poet named Sebastian Venable, and which played out aspects of the martyr story to heightened, melodramatic effect. In 1959, it was made into a film, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz and starring Montgomery Clift, Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, In the early scenes, formidable Southern matriarch, Violet Venable (Hepburn), has summoned the psychiatrist, Dr. John Cukrowicz (Clift) to her home to persuade him to perform a lobotomy on her troubled niece, Catherine (Taylor), who is spreading scandalous rumours about her dead son, Sebastian, whose mysterious death she has witnessed. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that the gay Sebastian had regularly used first his mother, and later his attractive cousin, to lure heterosexual boys for sex. This is the dreadful, unspeakable secret that Violet Venable wants to stifle forever; in a chillingly vicious moment, speaking of her niece, she implores the psychiatrist to ‘cut this hideous story out of her brain.’ In the denouement, an hysterical Catherine tells the doctor about Sebastian’s fantastic, pagan death, on a Mexican beach, at the hands of street boys:
He…he was… lying naked on the broken stones...and this you won't believe! Nobody, nobody, nobody could believe it! It looked as if…as if they had devoured him!...As if they'd torn or cut parts of him away with their hands, or with knives, or those jagged tin cans they made music with. As if they'd torn bits of him away and stuffed them into those gobbling mouths! There wasn’t a sound anymore…there was nothing but Sebastian…Sebastian lying on those stones…torn and crushed!

Williams directs the audience to draw a parallel between Saint Sebastian and the dead Venable; the beach, Catherine says, was ‘named for Sebastian's name saint...La Playa San Sebastian.’119 Williams uses the notion of cannibalism as a ‘trope for the social anxiety surrounding homosexuality [which is, itself] a transgressive, ’mutually consumptive bond between men,’ which causes the collapse of reason.120
118 119

Nicholas de Jonghe, Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage, Routledge, 1992, p.95 Tennessee Williams, ‘Suddenly Last Summer’, in Tennessee Williams: Four Plays, New York: Penguin, 1976,

120 Steven Bruhm, ‘Blackmailed by Sex: Tennessee Williams and the Economics of Desire’ in Modern Drama, No.34, 1991, p.533

In her essay, ‘Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer and Euripides’ Bacchae,’ Janice Siegel finds links between the two plays:
Suddenly Last Summer resonates strongly with many of the themes and plot details of Euripides' Bacchae. Much of the action in both plays turns on the consequences of a perverse sexuality born of repression (manifested among other ways as a disturbing sexual connection between mother and son). Other shared themes include the son's search for a god he sees as a Destroyer, the irresistible pull of eros, the consequences of the psychological fragmentation of an individual, the struggle between those who seek to reveal truth and those who are determined to conceal it, and the participation of a mother in the destruction of her own child. Each male protagonist is pursued, ripped apart, and consumed by the members of a community he sexually infiltrated. The truth about each sparagmos (rending) and omophagia (raw-eating) is uncovered in similar scenes between “psychotherapist” and amnesia victim.121

Williams wrote the play at a time when he was undergoing, as were a great many well-heeled gay men, intensive Freudian psychoanalysis. His analyst had suggested that Williams separate from his lover, Frank Merlo, and get married in order ‘to attempt a heterosexual life.’122 If the notion of a prefrontal lobotomy, performed merely in order to stifle free speech and thought seems outlandish today, it should be remembered that this operation was regularly performed, from the early 1930s into the 1960s, on a wide-range of recipients, ranging from rebellious teenagers to the genuinely mentally ill. In fact, Williams’ sister Rose, diagnosed as schizophrenic at the age of twenty-six, was given a lobotomy; this resulted in her being permanently institutionalised until her death, in 1996, at the age of eighty-seven.123 Homosexuals were also routinely operated on in this fashion; it was less than forty years ago (1973) that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic Manual of mental illness. In fact, a wide range of ‘cures’ for the ‘abnormality’ of homosexuality were eagerly pursued by the psychiatric profession.
Electroshock and pharmacologically induced shock treatments were used on homosexual patients in state hospitals and private psychiatric clinics from the 1940s through the 1960s. One common routine was to tamper with the conditioned reflex of individual male patients by showing them slides of sexy men followed by nausea-inducing drugs and then by administering testosterone before showing slides of sexy women. Other experiments included inducing anxiety about homosexuality in a patient while reducing or ‘desensitizing’ anxiety about heterosexuality. Such treatments, on the whole, were unsuccessful in ending homosexual orientation or desire.124

121 Janice Siegel, ‘Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer and Euripides’ Bacchae’ in International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 11, No. 4 / December, 2005, Springer, Netherlands. 122 De Jonghe, p.79 123 Williams was forever haunted by his sister’s fate. Versions of Rose appear in several of his plays. At the time of her lobotomy, Williams wrote the following blank verse in his journal: ‘Grand, God be with you. / A chord breaking. / 1000 miles away. / Rose. Her head cut open. / A knife thrust in her brain. / Me. Here. Smoking. / My father, mean as a devil, snoring – 1000 miles away.’ 124 Jennifer Terry, An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society, University of Chicago Press, 1999, n. 31, p.470

A cursory glance through the American medical literature from this period will provide ample evidence of the cavalier, even reckless, treatment of gay men at the hands of science. Consider the following few examples: Samuel Liebman’s, ‘Homosexuality, Transvestism, and Psychosis: Study of a Case Treated with Electroshock,’ in Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 99, 6 (1944); Joseph W. Friedlander and Ralph S. Banay’s, ‘Psychosis Following Lobotomy in a Case of Sexual Psychopathology,’ in Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry 59 (1948); J. Srnec and K. Freund’s, ‘Treatment of Male Homosexuality through Conditioning’ in International Journal of Sexology, no. 2 (1953); Moses Zlotlow and Albert E. Paganini’s, ‘Autoerotic and Homoerotic Manifestations in Hospitalized Male Postlobotomy (sic) Patients,’ in Psychiatric Quarterly 33, 3 (1959); Michael M. Miller’s, ‘Hypnotic-Aversion Treatment of Homosexual Behavior,’ in Psychological Reports 26, no. 2 (1970). Commenting on this shameful period, Warren Johansson and William A. Percy write:
The emergence during the late nineteenth century of the medical concept of sexual inversion – supposedly more scientific and objective than the clerical concept of sodomy – meant only that instead of prison…families could have homosexuals subjected to indefinite confinement in asylums, with electroshock, prefrontal lobotomy, castration, and other forms of ‘treatment’ recommended by physicians or psychoanalysts. Supposedly all this was not only for the good of the patients but also to keep them from infecting society with their degeneracy.125

It is precisely this ‘degeneracy’ that Williams, who was never to be totally at ease with his sexuality, in a spirit of self-loathing, ascribes to Sebastian Venable. To return to the film version of Suddenly Last Summer, again in the early scenes: Mrs. Venable ushers Dr Cukrowicz into Sebastian’s study, from the hothouse garden of primordial, carnivorous plants. The book-filled study is crammed with the signifying tropes of the 1940s gay aesthete: a framed drawing of the back of a male nude; a mid-size canvas of a brooding dark male figure; a small Greek statue of a male torso; various theatrical masks. On the back wall is a full-length, life-size replica of Botticelli’s Saint Sebastian (fig. 57), of which only the bottom third can be seen. Reminiscing, Mrs.Venable tells the doctor, ‘He would sit in his chair, I in mine, at five o’clock every day and we would have our daiquiris with Saint Sebastian brooding above us.’126


Warren Johansson and William A. Percy, Outing: Shattering the Conspiracy of Silence, Haworth Press, 1994,

126 In the BBC production of the play (1993), which stars Maggie Smith as Mrs. Venable, it is Reni’s Sebastian (the one in Genoa; Wilde’s favourite) that graces the wall.

Figure 57. Sandro Botticelli, Saint Sebastian, 1447.

The gay (but closeted) American writer/photographer, Carl Van Vechten made several works on the theme of Saint Sebastian in the 1940s. In Male Model (St Sebastian) (fig. 58), we are presented with a very artificial image. The arrows in this ‘art’ photograph are as ineffective as those in the Holland Day image discussed above. The model stands in front of a tawdry, ‘theatrical’ silver-foil backdrop and holds three arrows in place by tightly clamping them against his body, under his arm and between his thighs. His wrists are tied behind his back and he looks up to the ceiling with something like resignation. The mood and effect of the photograph is rather listless; the image has none of the violent energy or vigour usually associated with images of the saint; indeed, one wonders what exactly Van Vechten was hoping to convey because even the potential erotic charge is numbed by the mundane setup. It is in a second work, made during the same session, with the same model, that Van Vechten’s full intention is made clear. The image appears in one of twenty scrapbooks that the photographer kept for the private consumption of himself and his gay friends. These scrapbooks reveal an arch, camp sensibility. They contain his own photographs as well as images culled from magazines and newspapers, and snipped-out text. Images of beautiful naked black men jockey with homophobic newspaper articles; pornographic images, such as a young man engaging in auto-fellatio, sit next to images of ancient Greek statuary; publicity photographs of closeted gay Hollywood stars or King Farouk of Egypt were teamed with

Figure 58. Carl Van Vechten, Male Model (St Sebastian), silver gelatin photograph, late-1940s.

Figure 59. Carl Van Vechten, untitled photographic collage, late-1940s.

unconnected newspaper headlines which ‘out’ them.127 In a double-page spread within one of the scrapbooks, we find the ‘private’ version of the Sebastian photograph (fig. 59). In a conflation of sex and consumerism, Van Vechten has pasted text which once described food and toilet tissue around the image; ‘MEAT: the yardstick / BIG INCH / Luxuriously Soft – Dependably Strong / What a Dish’. In the photograph, we are presented with a chest-to-knee close-up of the model, which affords a better view of his half-erect penis (known as a ‘Hollywood loaf’ in the gay slang of the period). Indeed, the whole collage is a size-queen’s delight; the promise of substantial tumescence is continuously underscored. Two of the arrows are lodged on either side of the model’s genitals, reiterating the full erection to come and, lest we be in any doubt of the meaning of the work, an entire ruler, marked with thirty-four centimetres is pasted opposite the image. Here, Sebastian’s role has been subverted and his usual position as a penetrated, and thereby ‘feminised’, male has been reversed. In this version, the accoutrements of his sacrifice have become merely titillating props that propose his well-endowed (homo) sexual prowess.

‘A fate that might be called shining’ Yukio Mishima was twenty-three when he wrote Confessions of a Mask, in 1948. Born Kimitaka Hiraoka, he used the nom de plume Mishima so that his antiliterary father would not know that he wrote. The autobiographical novel concerns the adolescence of a boy, who struggles with his homosexuality and grows up isolated, perhaps even disturbed. Early on, he forms a romantic interest in knights and chivalry; this interest gradually becomes conflated with fantasies of death and sadomasochism; as a child he ‘delighted in imagining situations in which [he] was dying in battle or being murdered.’128 Playing a war game with some schoolgirl friends, he falls to the ground,
enraptured with the vision of my own form lying there, twisted and fallen. There was an unspeakable delight in having been shot and being on the point of death.129

As his sexuality begins to find focus he notices that he is erotically attracted to the male bodies he sees on the beach. Later, he ‘becomes erect imagining death, pools of blood, and muscular flesh, scenes of samurai cutting open their bellies and soldiers struck by bullets.’130 He spends his afternoons making detailed gory crayon drawings of circus performers who have been shot, or have fallen from a tightrope; these he guiltily hides. One day, in his father’s study, he finds some art books and by chance comes across ‘a reproduction of Guido Reni’s “St. Sebastian,” which hangs in the collection of the Palazzo Rosso at
127 Rock Hudson was one such actor to receive this treatment in the scrapbooks (years before the general public’s reluctant acceptance of his homosexuality). Under the text ‘gay young blades!’ is an image of the wholesome, smiling actor, holding a sword; next to this is pasted a grinning model in a string vest, above which is the text, ‘SEXY SIGNOR / gay Italian pro / For Men Only’. 128 Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, trans. Meredith Weatherby, N.Y.: New Directions, 1958, pp.38-41 129 Ibid, p. 28 130 Jerry S. Piven, The Madness and Perversion of Yukio Mishima, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004, p.41

Genoa.’ The painting stirs a powerful erotic sensation in the twelve-year-old, resulting in his first ejaculation. In a long, descriptive passage he describes the incident:
A remarkably handsome youth was bound naked to the trunk of a tree. His crossed hands were raised high, and the thongs binding his wrists were tied to the tree…His white and matchless nudity gleams against a background of dusk…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…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…That day, the instant I looked at 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 ardour, 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 swiftfooted to the attack from inside me. Suddenly it burst forth, bringing with it a blinding intoxication…Some time passed…I looked around the desk. 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…Fortunately, a reflex motion of my hand to protect the picture had saved the book from being soiled.131

From this pivotal moment, Mishima became obsessed. American psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton states that:
St. Sebastian’s martyrdom remained a central or ‘controlling’ image for Mishima from that time onward…It is not too much to say that from his first encounter with the image, Mishima became and never ceased to be himself a version of St. Sebastian. In his romance with the saint we sense his hunger for death imagery as a demonic source of imagination and vitality.’132

Mishima realised the nature of his homosexual reading of the painting, for he follows his description with an observation that ‘it is an interesting coincidence that Hirschfeld should place “pictures of St. Sebastian” in the first rank of those kinds of art works in which the invert takes special delight.’ He then makes a specific, personal assertion that ‘the inverted and the sadistic impulses are inextricably entangled with each other.’133 A few years after the incident in his father’s study, Mishima wrote a prose poem about the saint, imagining that the tree he saw outside his schoolroom window might be ‘the very tree…to which the young saint was bound with his hands behind him, over the trunk of which his sacred blood trickled like driblets after a rain.’134 He goes on to speculate that while Sebastian was a young captain in the Praetorian guard, the ‘robust women of Rome’ must have sensed a beauty such as his was a thing destined for death. His blood ‘was coursing with [a] fiercer pace…watching for an opening from which to spurt forth when that flesh would soon be torn asunder. How could the women have failed to hear the
131 132

Mishima, pp.38-41 Robert J. Lifton, The Broken Connection: on Death and the Continuity of Life, American Psychiatric Mishima, p. 41 Ibid, p. 43

Publishing, 1996, p. 267
133 134

tempestuous desires of blood such as this? His was not a fate to be pitied… Rather was it proud and tragic, a fate that might even be called shining…it was nothing less than martyrdom which lay in wait for him along the way…this brand which Fate had set upon him was precisely the token of his apartness from all ordinary men of earth.’135 This passage contains several important elements of Mishima’s homosexual identification with the saint. The robust (i.e. healthy, heterosexual) women regard his beauty (his true nature). It is unattainable and the penalty for this is his inevitable death; they know it, and he knows it, even his very blood knows it and, in a vivid conflation of eros and thanatos, waits to ‘spurt forth’. He wonders how the women can be unaware of his tempestuous (i.e. ‘unnatural’) desires. But Mishima/Sebastian also feels (gay) pride in his state of being; his difference is a ‘fate that might even be called shining.’ This ‘martyrdom’ is a symbol of his ‘apartness from ordinary men,’ an apartness which is the inherent, constant ingredient of every gay man’s experience within the heteronormative world. Mishima’s erotic imagination became inextricably meshed with violence and, when he writes about these formative years, we may detect the dominationfantasies of a young boy who feels powerless.
Young Roman gladiators offered up their lives for my amusement…[with] mournful, pathetic cries…my own shout of exultation, answering the victim cry for cry…my imagination slaughtered many princes of savage tribes, hotel elevator-boys, waiters, young toughs, army officers…I would kiss the lips of those who had fallen to the ground and were still moving.136

It comes as no surprise that in reality, as a child, Mishima felt himself to be scrawny and weak and that he later embarked upon a fifteen-year regimen of daily body-building to permanently remove that stigma. The physical perfection of the Reni Sebastian struck a chord with him, but he fetishised the image, focussing on specific areas of the body; in so doing, Mishima tapped into the same aspects of feminised images of Sebastian and mediaeval Christ discussed earlier. It his case, it was the exposed armpits that galvanise him;
These two openings, tufted with the hair which signifies sexual maturity, are an obvious way of feminising the male body, giving it further orifices which can be penetrated.137

Early in the novel, Mishima forms a crush on an older boy called Omi, whose occasionally exposed armpits are a thrilling event.
Ever since becoming obsessed with the picture of St Sebastian, I had acquired the unconscious habit of crossing my arms over my head whenever I happened to be undressed. Mine was a pale body, without so much as a pale shadow of Sebastian’s abundant beauty. But now once more I spontaneously fell into the pose. As I did so my eyes went to my armpits. And a mysterious sexual desire boiled up within me…
135 136

Ibid, p. 45-46 Quoted in Mark Weston and Walter F. Mondale, Giants of Japan: The Lives of Japan's Most Influential

Men and Women, Kodansha America, 2002, p. 273 137 Rowland Wymer, Derek Jarman, Manchester University Press, 2005, p.45

Summer had come and, with it, there in my armpits, the first sprouts of black thickets, not the equal of Omi’s it is true, but undoubtedly there. Here then was the point of similarity with Omi that my purposes required. There is no doubt that Omi himself was involved in my sexual desire, but neither could it be denied that this desire was directed mainly towards my own armpits.138

In the climactic scenes of Confessions of a Mask, Mishima visits a dance hall where he becomes transfixed by a tough youth. He imagines the boy getting into a fight and constructs a fantasy about his violent death. In this long descriptive passage, Mishima could almost be reliving his erotic encounter with the Sebastian painting, as the imagery is virtually interchangeable: The youth is ‘twenty-one or-two, with coarse but regular and swarthy features. He had taken off his shirt and stood there half naked…His naked chest showed bulging muscles, fully developed and tensely knit; a deep cleft ran down between the solid muscles of his chest towards his abdomen.’ Mishima gazes at the ‘black tufts [that] stuck out from the cracks of his armpits’ (tufts which are absent in the original depilated image), at which sight, he is ‘beset by sexual desire’. As in the Reni painting, this youth also threw back his head so that Mishima could see ‘his thick, muscular neck,’ so that a ‘strange shudder ran through [his] innermost heart.’ Taking the Sebastian metaphor to its inevitable conclusion, Mishima can only think of one thing:
Of his going out into the streets of high summer just as he was, half-naked, and getting into a fight with a rival gang. Of a sharp dagger cutting through that belly-band, piercing that torso. Of that soiled belly-band beautifully dyed with blood. Of his gory corpse being put on an improvised stretcher, made of a window shutter, and brought back here.139

In 1968, Mishima had himself photographed by Kishin Shinoyama in the role of Sebastian (fig. 58) and, more specifically, as Reni’s Genoa Sebastian, which had so transported him as a twelve-year-old boy In this beautiful, dream-like photograph we are presented Mishima-as-Sebastian-as-martyr. Mishima, a married homosexual in anti-homosexual, arch-conservative, tradition-bound Japan, was eminently placed to perceive of himself as sacrificial victim. He had spent a lifetime fetishising the Reni painting; it had accreted into the cornerstone of his own brand of right-wing nationalism and his personalised philosophy of power through endurance. Confessions of a Mask showed the difficulties of growing up gay and the necessity of adopting disguises (the mask of the title) to hide one’s true nature in a society hostile to that nature. This was as true for Mishima in the 1940s as it had been for Wilde a hundred years before, and as it had been for Sodoma, four-hundred years before that. In 1967, Mishima underwent basic training in the Japan Self-Defence Forces. A year later he formed the Tatenokai (Shield Society), his private militia, manned

138 139

Mishima, p. 88 Ibid, pp. 252-253

Figure 58. Kishin Shinoyama, Mishima as St Sebastian, silver gelatine print, 1968

mainly by university students. In November, 1970, five Tatenokai members briefly took over the Defence Forces headquarters and attempted to rally the soldiers in a coup d’etat so that imperial rule could once again be established. When, inevitably, this failed Mishima committed ritual suicide by seppuku.140 His body was then beheaded with a samurai sword by his second-in-command. In death, Mishima had ‘become’ Reni’s St Sebastian; it could be said that, like Sebastian himself, his entire life had been moving inexorably closer to this merging of life and art, of reality and fantasy, of fact and fiction. Pelting season It was in the 1980s that Saint Sebastian resumed his original, rightful place as an intercessor against plague. In 1981, an unknown disease was identified in New York and San Francisco. Gay men were presenting with unusual opportunistic infections and rare cancers, such as Kaposi’s sarcoma. The illness became known as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). It seemed stubbornly resistant to any treatment, but it quickly became obvious that all the men were suffering from a common syndrome. As the disease quickly spread through the major gay centres of the east and west coast of America, there was a widely
140 Seppuku is ritual suicide by disembowelling, the most common form of which is harakiri. Seppuku was historically reserved for samurai and was thought to be a noble death.

expressed view from the general public, and from church and state alike, that this was a sign from God; these abnormal, immoral people only had themselves to blame.141 When cases of HIV infection began occurring in people other than gay men this led to a change in the name of the disease from GRID to AIDS. The next to suffer the ravages of the illness were (predominantly) Hispanic and African American intravenous drug users. When the first ‘innocent’ (read heterosexual, white) victims were reported, Ronald Regan made his first speech to the nation about the problem but by then over 20,000 ‘guilty’ (read gay or drug user) Americans had died. Even so, in the general public’s mind, the disease was still firmly believed to be associated with homosexuals, and this tapped into deep-seated fears and prejudices about the essential ‘dirtiness’ of homosexuals.142 Had gay men stuck to the ‘rules’ and remained hidden, the whole unpleasant business of their way of life (and now their way of death) could have been ignored. But this was a period when homosexuals were no longer content to live furtively in the shadows. Not only were they a clear and open presence on the streets of major cities, but they were rejoicing in their lives as never before. The proliferation of gay saunas and bath houses, since the 1970s, had become a subject of deep concern to the straight community.
Promiscuity implies a frequent change of partners, but it also suggests cruising haunts, meeting places and most insistently during the 1970s the proliferating growth of bath houses, back-room bars, fuck houses, establishments offering varied facilities and degrees of comfort and luxury, but all of them having one purpose: sex, sex for its own sake, sex in isolation, or in couples or in multiples, sex for pleasure, detached from all conventional ties and responsibilities.143

The notion of sex purely for hedonistic pleasure, without the attached burden of procreation, was particular abhorrent to those who espoused Christian ‘morality’ and ‘family values’. It was through sex that the gay community of large cities identified itself and separated itself from its heterosexual counterparts. Many gay men of this period viewed sexual promiscuity as a political act which allowed them to reject the heterosexual model and separated them from the restrictions of heteronormativity, which was intrinsically self-regulated by the notion of monogamy and the family. There was another problem for the straight watchdogs; it was becoming harder to identify who was gay and who was straight, as gay men began consciously to adopt the attributes normally associated with straight men, thereby undermining the very idea of masculinity itself. In the 1970s and through the 1980s, lumberjack shirts, boots, cropped hair, beards and moustaches became de rigueur everyday-wear for a certain sub-set of gay men within large cities.
141 Jerry Falwell, leader of the misnamed ‘Moral Majority’, always quick to lay most of society’s faults squarely on the gay and lesbian community, called AIDS a ‘blessing from God’. Falwell’s television program, ‘Old Time Gospel Hour’, reached over 50 million viewers every week. AIDS was the clear ‘proof’ they were looking for that they had been right all along. 142 This irrational (and homophobic) fear holds true even today. The Red Cross, for example, has a long-standing ban on gay men donating blood. Their fear is that AIDS-contaminated blood may enter into the blood bank. Their stance seems to be predicated on the false assumption that all gay men are promiscuous; but in any case, as all blood is tested, any virus would be detected before use. No such ban has been yet levied at heterosexual donors, even though the spread of AIDS is now most prevalent in heterosexuals. 143 Jeffrey Weeks, Sexuality and Its Discontents: Meanings, Myths, and Modern Sexualities, Routledge, 1985, p.220

Gender roles are crucially defined in terms of heterosexuality – ‘men’, as a social category, are people who screw ‘women’. By taking the signs of masculinity and eroticizing them in a blatantly homosexual context, much mischief is done to the security with which ‘men’ are defined in society, and by which their power is secured. If that bearded, muscular beerdrinker turns out to be a pansy, however are you going to know the ‘real’ men any more?144

In an episode of The Simpsons, amusingly entitled ‘Homer’s Phobia’, this confusion, which is still felt by many straight men, is neatly summed up by Homer, who complains to Marge: ‘I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my homosexuals flaming!’ This pervading ‘confusion’ initially operated as a useful tool in breaking down stereotypes, until the macho dress-code became a clichéd gay stereotype in itself and largely disappeared. As the disease ravaged the east and west coast of the United States, two young New York artists included AIDS as a subject in their work. The lives of both were cut short by the disease; David Wojnarowicz died in 1992, aged thirty-seven; Keith Haring died in 1990, aged thirty-one. They had both eagerly embraced the new optimism, openness and sexual freedom available to out gay men in the 80s. Their sexuality was a natural element within their work; but as things became grim they each, in their own way, became art-activists against government policy, homophobia and ignorance, and made works that directly challenged prevailing misconceptions. Wojnarowicz’s work, in particular, had a militant edge, as can be adduced by such painting titles as, Fuck You Faggot Fucker (1984). Both artists made work featuring Saint Sebastian and for both artists the saint stood for personal, sexual martyrdom. In Haring’s St.Sebastian (fig. 59), a redskinned Sebastian, tethered to a tree, is bedevilled by passenger planes, which pierce his torso. The distorted face (a sort of graphic, sub-Guernica affair) bespeaks his anguish, as do the ‘Steamboat Willy’ alarm lines that radiate from his head under the yellow moon/halo. That this is a (homo)sexual martyrdom is clear, due to the trembling erection sported by the distorted figure. The essentially sado-masochistic nature of Sebastian has here been updated to the twentieth-century; the saint now evokes a personal set of hedonistic tribulations; the pleasure and pain of the well-heeled, jet-setting gay artist.


Richard Dyer, ‘Only Entertainment’ in Over the Rainbow, Routledge, 2002, p.167

Figure 59. Keith Haring, Saint Sebastian, poster, 1984.

Wojnarowicz was a much more polemical artist than Haring. Taking the pain of martyrdom quite literally, he appears in Rosa Von Praunheim’s gritty documentary about attitudes to AIDS, Silence = Death (1990), sewing his lips shut (fig. 60). In his 1982 painting, featuring his lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, Peter Hujar Dreaming/Yukio Mishima: St Sebastian (fig. 61), Wojnarowicz portends Hujar’s illness. Hujar was diagnosed with the disease in 1987 and two years later Wojnarowicz photographed him, delirious and emaciated, on his

Figure 60. David Wojnarowicz in a still From Rosa Von Praunheim’s film, Silence = Death (1990).

Figure 59. David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar Dreaming/Yukio Mishima: St. Sebastian, 1982.

Figure 60. David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Peter Hujar), 1989.

deathbed (fig. 61). In the space of seven years between these images, we see the optimistic, hopeful, gay dream, with its self-conscious reference to the gay icons, Mishima and Sebastian, turn to its opposite; the gay nightmare of disease, suffering and incontrovertible death. Another New York artist, Julian Schnabel, commented on the AIDS crisis within his 1989 exhibition entitled: ‘Fox Farm Paintings’. Each of the works on display had the message: ‘There is no place on this planet more horrible than a fox farm during pelting season’ written upon its surface. Schnabel had apparently found the message scrawled in red ink on a ten-dollar note he had received as change. In the exhibition’s catalogue essay, Thomas McEvilly suggests that the works constitute the artist's ‘way of coming to terms with AIDS and the pollution of the planet’ (as if either of these catastrophes were not a sufficient subject for an exhibition, all by itself).145 One painting from the exhibition has particular

Figure 61. Julian Schnabel, Fox Farm Painting (St. Sebastian) 1989.


Thomas McEvilly, catalogue essay for Julian Schnabel’s exhibition, ‘Fox Farm Paintings’, Pace Gallery. N.Y.,


relevance to this subject. Painted on top of a found canvas (an extremely poor, amateur copy of a Reni Sebastian), the work has an immediacy and urgency befitting the subject of the gay plague. The ubiquitous ‘fox farm’ phrase is scrawled over the top right quadrant, in a mixture of upper and lower case text. The original, very poorly drawn image of Sebastian is bisected by a stripe of royal purple paint and much of the figure is ‘censored’ by a covering white smear of paint, which has all the finesse of a house-painter’s practical coverage. The poor condition of the canvas, as found by Schnabel, with much of its original paint long-gone and its paint discoloured by age, lends poignancy to the image, as does the tawdry ineptitude of the original hand. Here, Sebastian is again the saint of the people, revivified and, as always, triumphant in the face of death. He has now swung full-circle: from bubonic plague intercessor to gay fantasy figure to gay-plague intercessor.

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