The Art of the Erotic - an extract of work by Elizabeth Fullerton

Phaidon, October 2017

Few saints have exerted such a fascination over artists as Sebastian. He has fired the imagination of painters ranging from Andrea Mantegna to Hans Memling to El Greco, but the depiction of him made by the Italian Baroque painter Guido Reni in 1616 is surely one of the most alluring. Reni, who was renowned for the classical grace of his figures, portrays the saint as a fresh-faced, full-lipped Adonis, his wrists tied above his head as his muscular body writhes sensuously in a homoerotic pose. Sebastian gazes fixedly heavenwards; his face betrays no sign of agony, nor is his body sullied by blood or ugly wounds. The perfection of his pale figure is highlighted by Reni’s skilful use of contrasting light and shadow, a technique inspired by the Caravaggio’s work, which Reni saw during his years in Rome. 

According to legend, Sebastian was a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and was shot with arrows for his faith. it is often assumed that he died this way, because Christian iconography associates the martyr with arrows, but in fact he miraculously survived. After being nursed back to health by a pious widow, Sebastian heckled the emperor Diocletian for his persecution of Christians, whereupon he was bludgeoned to death.   

The image of Sebastian’s athletic body penetrated by arrows has long been a source of arousal for both women and men, although in modern times the saint has become a gay icon embodying an almost sadomasochistic fusion of pleasure, pain and spiritual suffering. Oscar Wilde, who was very taken with Reni’s 1616 version of Sebastian when he saw it at the Palazzo Rosso in Genoa, wrote a sonnet comparing the deceased poet John Keats to the handsome saint. 

In his depiction of Sebastian, Reni adheres to the traditional iconography - dark curly hair, a strong youthful frame stuck with arrows and tied to a pillar or tree - but accentuates the saint’s physical, hairless beauty, straying close to the edge of what was permissible by having Sebastian’s loin cloth barely cover his pubic area. Indeed, another version - Reni is believed to have painted as many as seven  — now in the Museo Nacional del Prado , Madrid, was deemed indecent and the saint’s loin cloth was extended upwards to expose less flesh. 

Yet while the Church proscribed excessive sexuality or nakedness in art as profane, some leeway was nonetheless allowed in practice on the tacit understanding that sensual passion could fan spiritual ardour.

Caravaggio, Amor Victorius, 1601-2 and Guido Reni, Saint Sebastian, c. 1615

Oil on canvas, 127 x 92 cm (50 x 361/4 in) 

Palazzo Rosso, Musei di Strada Nuova, Genoa