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Saint Sebastian by Régnier

Updated: Jun 23, 2020

Saint Sebastian

Oil on canvas, 1620, by Nicolas Régnier (1591–1667)

Saint Sebastian

Oil on canvas, 1620, by Nicolas Régnier (1591–1667)

Saint Sebastian

Oil on canvas, 1625, by Nicolas Régnier (1591–1667)

Saint Sebastian Being Tended by Saint Irene

Oil on canvas, 162?, by Nicolas Régnier (1591–1667)

Saint Sebastian, 1620 (first version)

As June is international ‘Pride’ month and as it happens to coincide this year in the hold of an international pandemic, what better subject in art to write about than Saint Sebastian? I never knew that Sebastian was the patron saint of athletes and also of pandemics! I did know, of course, that his iconography has become synonymously heralded as the artistic figurehead of the gay male sensibility, although the term ‘appropriated’ is more technically correct as there was no evidence historically to suggest the man himself was homosexual. Rather he was a noble captain – bearded and of middling age no less – in the Roman imperial army who was martyred when he clashed with his emperor, Diocletian, who set about to persecute Christians during his reign. Sebastian refused to denounce his faith and his own soldiers were ordered to string him up and shoot him full of arrows. In a scene later echoed in another martyr, Rasputin, he somehow survived this assassination attempt and had his wounds tenderly nursed by Saint Irene of Rome. Failing to learn that discretion is the better part of valour, the recovered Sebastian went and taunted Diocletian again about his Christianity only for the emperor to have him immediately clubbed to death, after which his body was thrown face down into the sewers to ensure there was no coming back this time. Sure enough, the job was done, but Sebastian was destined to live on in death, venerated by the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

How he came to represent pandemics is tenuous at best. As scholars have noted, “the connection of the shot martyr with the plague is not an intuitive one.” However, my research reveals there is an argument that he is a Christianised version of the Greco-Roman myth of Apollo, the archer god, who at times used to destroy his enemies with ‘plague-arrows’ and was also the deliverer from pestilence. The ability for Sebastian to survive his first assassination attempt also gave people the belief that he could overcome a plague and live to tell the tale. His arrow-wounds, visually, signified the welts that were later the symptoms of pandemics such as the bubonic plague in Medieval times.

Saint Sebastian, 1620 (second version)

His association as the patron saint of athletes is also mysterious, given he was no youth at the time of his martyrdom. His depiction in art, however, has always been transmogrified into that of a beautiful near-naked adolescent. Indeed, next to depictions of Christ, Sebastian is the most painted near-nude male figure in canonical art. His physique of an athlete coupled with his stamina to endure physical pain has probably endeared him to sportsmen, especially if we also consider that ‘traditional sport’ involved hunting and archery pursuits, of which he is so closely linked. It is also partly for this reason that Sebastian has become such an icon to gay men. Not only has his pierced flesh been seized upon by countless gay artists over the centuries as an opportune excuse to depict a subject in the near-naked male form, but there is a clear homoeroticism attached to the manner of his death: the penetration of the phallocentric arrows into his body by the very men in his own regiment is symbolism too overtly sexualised to be left untethered to the cause. There are deeper psychosexual implications in Sebastian’s story too: both Susan Sontag and Germaine Greer, for example, noted how Sebastian is somehow always depicted as a dichotomous figure in that his expression rarely ever captures the apparent physical pain that his body, stuck full of arrows, must be suffering. Indeed, at times there is a coy attitude of ecstatic pleasure etched on his ever-winsome face. His hands are also always tied behind his back rendering him passive in a quasi-bondage pose. For this reason, queer theorists have always attributed sadomasochistic tendencies to Sebastian, as well as drawing gay parallels to his ironic inverse ‘outing’ as a Christian persecuted in his time for his lifestyle.

Saint Sebastian, 1625

Of the dozens and dozens of depictions of Saint Sebastian by almost every major artist, I have settled on studying four by the Flemish master, Nicolas Régnier, principally because I was lucky enough to see his brushwork close up as a 1624 self-portrait (and therefore contemporaneous with his Sebastian depictions) hangs in the Fogg Museum at Harvard. Also, for whatever reason, he seemed to have something of an obsession with Sebastian as a subject as he painted him several times during his career, including twice in 1620 alone.

The two 1620 paintings are quite different in palette tone (although my digital reproductions might be at fault), but what is clear is that all four have been drawn from the same live model. This grants not only continuity to the series, but also creates an emotional cohesion between the attitudes captured in each. In every scene of the struck subject, his face and large captivating eyes are turned upwards as if he is appealing for spiritual strength and acclamation. His lips are lush and red which are accented sharply against his dark mane of thick black hair and thus his youth and sensuality are stylistically emphasised. Régnier particularly focuses on the very specific expression that Sebastian wears as if he is in the midst of some kind of genuine rhapsodic experience of religious epiphany; his mouth in two of the paintings is slightly agape to suggest the aghast experience of sublime pain as it is channelled and transcends into a higher understanding of what his act of self-sacrifice means. In all paintings a simple skimpy white loincloth protects Sebastian’s modesty from our gaze, but there is no denying its intentional eroticism: while it covers his genitals, it paradoxically invites us to fetishize his naked torso more ravenously; what is covered is likewise only more implicitly imagined. This effect is achieved by the fact that the figure blazes luminously against the chiaroscuro of the black backgrounds and his flesh is fully energised by the tight brushwork which configures the contours of his stunning physique. The 1625 depiction is particularly titillating as Régnier tantalisingly inches Sebastian’s loincloth further up his exposed naked left thigh. It is hardly any wonder poor Sebastian’s homoerotic appropriation has been so swift and so substantial!

Saint Sebastian Being Tended by Saint Irene, 162?

Saint Sebastian Being Tended by Saint Irene has been no less seized upon by the gay intelligentsia than the lone figures of the saint. Here we have the archetypal blending of the erotic with the matriarchal; the image is distinctly Oedipal in tone but also mirrors certain Madonna iconography too. The motherly figure of Irene tenderly withdraws the arrows from the bosom of the fallen figure she has found barely alive. Her brow is creased; her posture is rapt with tension. Beside her is a sisterly figure who is keen to assist. Irene’s one hand rests on the limp wrist of her patient; the connection between his flesh and hers implies a kind of mother-son binary which surpasses the reality of the good Samaritan stranger attending to a victim of random brutality. Régnier enforces the matronly connection because in this moment of near death, all women, any women, enact the role of the nursing mother to the fallen boy-soldier. Viewed from within the context of queer-theory (it is Pride month after all), we have the depiction of the mother figure who, regardless of personal view or regret, naturally welcomes back to her bosom the errant promiscuous son who, wounded by the brutal crudity of the adult world of male-to-male sexual politics, is now in need of refuge, nursing and close comfort; indeed, a reduction back towards an infantilised existence nearer to boyish innocence than adolescent experience.


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