St. Sebastian became a “first-tier” plague intercessor due to his association with arrows, as you will read below. Need to catch up on the previous blog post that connects arrows & pestilence? Click HERE.
St. Sebastian came from a noble family in Gaul. He was a commander in the Praetorian Guards and a favorite of the Emperor Diocletian. Sebastian was secretly a Christian and attempted to protect other early Christians from persecution. The emperor eventually discovered the secret of Sebastian’s faith and sent orders to execute him. According to The Golden Legend, Diocletian had Sebastian tied to a tree and ordered his archers use him for target practice.
They hit him with so many arrows that he looked like a hedgehog, and they left him there for dead. But within a few days he recovered and was standing on the steps of the palace…Sebastian [said]; ‘The Lord saw fit to bring me to life again so that I could confront you and reproach you with all the atrocities you are committing against the servants of Christ.’ One of the emperors then ordered him to be beaten with clubs until finally he breathed his last.
St. Sebastian is awarded two crowns for his two “martyrdoms:” first by arrows and then by clubs. His body was buried on the Appian Way in the Basilica Apostolorum, which became known as the Basilica di San Sebastino in the 7th century. San Sebastino and its catacombs make up one of Rome’s earliest Christian sites and was an important pilgrimage route.
Read more: Tuesday in Rome: Catacombs FINALLY!
Although St Sebastian is a third century martyr, his cult was first recorded in the eighth century by Paul the Deacon in the History of the Lombards, in which he described a plague in 680 CE in Pavia that ended when an altar was raised to the saint, but there was no specific plague iconography created. Sebastian may have been the first saint to ever be invoked against the plague.
Then it was said to a certain man by revelation that the pestilence itself would not cease before an altar of St. Sebastian the martyr was placed in the church…And it was done, and after the remains of St. Sebastian the martyr had been carried from the city of Rome, presently the altar was set up in the aforesaid church and the pestilence itself ceased.
John Aberth, From the Brink of the Apocalypse
After the Black Death, St. Sebastian’s martyrdom became a symbolic sacrifice to God. Louise Marshall describes Sebastian’s association with the plague in “Manipulating the Sacred: Image and Plague in Renaissance Italy: “Sebastian acts as a living ‘lightning rod,’ drawing the plague arrows away from humanity and ‘grounding’ them harmlessly into his own flesh.” The emphasis is on Sebastian’s ability to draw the arrows from their intended victims, into himself, and survive his fatal wounds. This action provides hope to those suffering from the plague that they too would be delivered.
The nature of St. Sebastian’s unique martyrdom makes him easily recognizable in art. Pictures of this saint are almost always of his martyrdom and he is often depicted as a semi-nude youth either tied to a tree or a column with multiple arrows piercing his flesh. In art, he often gazes heavenward with a noble and spiritual countenance, like the expression he holds in Francesco Botticini’s Saint Sebastian. St. Sebastian is pierced by six arrows in his torso and is seen gazing up at an angel who carries a crown to place on his head.
Next up! St. Sebastian in Art
- Aberth, John. From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague, and Death in the Later Middle Ages, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.
- Clement, Clara Eskine. Saints in Art. New York: Snova, Nova Science Publishers, 2004.
- Marshall, Louise. “Manipulating the Sacred: Image and Plague in Renaissance Italy.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 3 (Autumn, 1994).
- Vaslef, Irene. “The Role of St. Roch as a Plague Saint: A Late Medieval Hagiographic Tradition.” Ph.D. diss., The Catholic University of America, 1984.
- Voragine, Jacobus de. The Golden Legend. Translated by Christopher Stace. London: Penguin, 1998.
- Webb, Matilda. The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome: A Comprehensive Guide. Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2001.