The Iconography of Saint Sebastian in Contemporary Art

Throughout history, artists have used iconography as a way to express their opinions on society. The image of Saint Sebastian is commonly known as being an icon for the LGBTQ+ community and their struggle for acceptance into society. However Sebastian’s relevance has grown and can now be used to represent any socially oppressed group of individuals. The iconography of Saint Sebastian has been expanded beyond its original homoerotic symbolism and is now effective in the activist art concerning social justice in many sectors of society.


In order to understand the use of Saint Sebastian in art, one must first consider the tale of his heroism and treachery. Sebastian was a Roman soldier, and at the time, emperors Maximian and Diocletian were in power. He was very courageous and honest, and this attracted the attention of Diocletian, who appointed him the head of the first cohort of the Imperial Guard. However, Sebastian was a devout Christian, and began converting others to Christianity. When Diocletian heard of this treachery, he sentenced Sebastian to death. He was tied to a tree, and shot with a tremendous number of arrows. He was left tied to the tree, assumed to be dead. However, he was still alive as his wounds had not killed him. St. Irene, the widow of Castulus, nursed Sebastian back to health. Once he was recuperated, he was encouraged to flee, however being a devout Christian and not being afraid to demonstrate his beliefs, he went back to the lands of Diocletian and stated that Christians are the most devout believers and publicly stated his opinions on the persecutions. Of course Diocletian did not want others to know that he had failed in executing Sebastian, so he once again sentenced him to death. He was beaten to death with rocks and his body was thrown into a water-shoot.


His defiance against the norm, and his vehemence to stand up for what he believed in is what makes Sebastian such an important icon in visual imagery. There are many reasons that Sebastian has been adopted as an icon for the gay community. Paintings of Saint Sebastian began to appear around the 6th century by a variety of painters. As well, each artist painted Sebastian differently, however there were common threads. To begin, Saint Sebastian is the only person to have ever been depicted naked in the Christian faith. He wears a loincloth, but it barely covers his genitals. As well, he is incredibly submissive which is contrary to the typical male portraits. He has his hands tied behind him and he is tied to a tree. As well, his gaze, which is typically looking up in a relaxed, even pleasant way, is feminized, like the Saint Sebastian work by Luca Signorelli. In this work, Sebastian is positioned in a way that the viewer is looking directly at Sebastian’s genitals. However, his genitals are covered by a loincloth. Positioning the viewers gaze so directly at something of a sexual nature contributes to the homoerotic sense of Saint Sebastian. In addition, the iconography of the arrow can be heavily discussed, as either “arrows of love”, as commonly depicted in the renaissance and as a phallic symbol (penetrating Sebastian).

These elements present in Baroque and Renaissance works of Saint Sebastian lead to an overall acceptance of the homoeroticism of the Saint. The combination of these elements lead to a homosexual following for the works depicting Saint Sebastian. The male viewer was also the most common viewer for these works (the artists were men as well as the patrons). As well, since homosexuality was illegal at the time of the renaissance, artists producing these works may have been using the saint as an outlet for their homosexual desires.

Discussed below are examples of works in which Saint Sebastian is used to bring to light discussions on different social movements.

David Wojnarowicz was an American painter who “explored the relationship between corporate greed, homophobia, and the AIDS crisis in his writings and in his art” (IN THE TEXTBOOK PG 349). David Wojnarowicz uses the collage technique in his work “Bad Moon Rising” to discuss the HIV/AIDS crisis and the lack of effort being done to help resolve it. In the collage technique, and artist takes images from pop-culture, paintings, or anywhere and juxtaposes them to create a new meaning. In this work Wojnarowicz uses a foot-less and headless image of Saint Sebastian, as well as images of money, a petri dish of blood cells, a clock, images depicting homosexual sexual acts, images of a house and more. In this work, there are several themes addressed. Sebastian’s erotic meaning as a subcultural homosexual icon, the AIDS crisis and the urgency to find a medical cure. The image of Saint Sebastian in this work represents the gay community that is suffering. Without explicitly stating it in this work, Wojnarowicz makes the message blatantly obvious, even for the uneducated viewer. When one sees an image of a objectively beautiful male body, a petri dish and clocks as well as homosexual pornography, it is quite simple to draw a conclusion about the subject matter. In this work, one can also see an image of a clock over-layed with an image of a petri dish which is incredibly effective as a symbol of the AIDS crisis. This image instills the feeling of urgency and the passage of time without a cure for a disease which was rampantly killing people. Saint Sebastian was the ideal icon to use in this work because it instantaneously relates this work to the gay community, and within Saint Sebastian is so much meaning that it also brings to this work.

Louise Bourgeois was a French-American artist who was well known for her large-scale sculptures and installations as well as being an important figure in the feminist art movement. She has also been known to use the figure of Saint Sebastian to comment on society and help to forward the feminist agenda. From 1990-1992 Bourgeois produced a number of sketches (over 20) of a feminized Saint Sebastian. For Bourgeois, “Sainte Sébastienne” “is a self portrait. It’s a state of being under attack, of being anxious and afraid. What does a person do when they are under siege? You better understand why you are being attacked. Is it provoked? Is it revenge? Do you fight back, or do you run for cover and retreat into the protection of your own lair? That is the big question.” The figure varied from being headless, to having other animals and figures as her head. She says the different figures represent emotions, or even her children. Her “Sébastienne” is always depicted as an over-sexualized female, having an enlarged stomach and breasts. As well, arrows can be seen which recall the characteristic images of Saint Sebastian. As well, she is lacking arms and sometimes a head which renders her defenceless. In my opinion Bourgeois is shedding light on the way women are treated and mistreated in society, as people who are often the recipients of forms of aggression and antifeminism or otherwise. Lacking arms, she is unable to defend herself from this unwarranted aggression. In using the figure of Saint Sebastian, Bourgeois is able to call attention to the gender stereotypes ingrained in religion and specifically the story of Saint Sebastian as well. The iconography of the arrows piercing a person are immediately recognizable as recalling Saint Sebastian, and one is suddenly able to understand what Bourgeois has done here. She has used the stereotype of a male martyr and flipped it on its head. Now woman is placed as a martyr which brings to light an important discussion on women’s rights and the feminist movement. The original use of Sebastian has been adopted to further discourse on the way women are treated in our society.

Kehinde Wiley is a renowned painter who is well known for making strides in the world of racially driven art. He is known for inserting images of young, attractive African-American men into historical works where white men were typically depicted. He discusses how young African-American’s are viewed in society, and how they are “scared little boys oftentimes. [He] was one of them. [He] was completely scared of the Los Angeles Police Department”. By painting African-Americans in a strong light, Wiley is empowering these young people and showing them that they are beautiful and strong and respected. In his 2006 work “Sebastian II”, Wiley inserted a black man into a work in which the title would suggest a white man. In the piece, a young man is standing in a way that occupies a large amount of space. In, for example, historical depictions of the Venus Pudica, Venus is standing in a way that demonstrates her shame, by covering her genitals and taking up very little space. The use of space that Wiley uses in “Sebastian II” contributes to the empowerment that his model is demonstrating by taking up as much space as possible, and shamelessly displaying his own body. In this work, one would expect to see a submissive Saint Sebastian as he is historically depicted, however, the model is depicted as strong and dominant. In addition, there are no arrows seen piercing the body of the model as one would anticipate from the historical paintings of Saint Sebastian. Instead, his model had been pierced by a different type of needle: a tattoo gun. “Sebastian II” is seen covered in tattoos which challenges what we would expect from the title. Wiley uses these techniques to alter our preconceived notions of a painting of Saint Sebastian, by the insertion of an empowered African-American presence, and by altering the iconography of the historical depictions of the saint. He purposefully, and effectively “surprises” us, by challenging the way society views historical works, and empowering young African-Americans in the process.


In the work discussed below, Saint Sebastian is used as a symbol to represent European colonialists and Christianity as opposed to the typical homoerotic context of the figure. In “Artist and Model” from 2003 by Kent Monkman, one can see a typical “romantic landscape” (characterized by the “Group of Seven”) parodied, by inserting Monkman’s alter ego, male drag character “Miss Chief Eagle Testickle”. Also present in the landscape is a caucasian cowboy with his pants around his ankles, tied to a tree, with arrows piercing him. The cowboy is the Saint Sebastian figure in this work.

Monkman’s work is a direct discussion on colonialism, and the impact Christianity had, and continues to have, on the First Nations people. When the colonials arrived, they forced the First Nations people to abandon their own beliefs and adopt a Christian set of values. The colonials also forced onto the First Nations people their thoughts on sexuality and gender. Monkman discusses the “two-spirit” identity present in the First Nations culture, in which one simultaneously embodies both and male and female spirit. He does this by including the character Miss Chief whose gender is ambiguous, and embodies both male and female traits. The First Nations culture generally accepts homosexuality and people of two-spirits, however the colonialist society did not share this set of beliefs. Monkman’s use of Saint Sebastian highlights the reluctance of Christians of this era to accept people of all sexualities and genders. As well, instead of the First Nations people being the centre of our gaze (as was typical in colonialist art), Saint Sebastian is now the focus of our attention. This is contrary to what one would expect from colonialist paintings. This work’s depiction of Miss Chief painting a portrait of Saint Sebastian on birch bark empowers the First Nations people. It places the First Nations people in charge of their own destiny, and Christianity and colonials in an inferior position. The work depicts a cultural role reversal which is made especially effective by the inclusion of Saint Sebastian, a Christian saint who represents European and colonialist views on sexuality and gender in this work.


Although Saint Sebastian’s historical use in art is that of being a homoerotic icon, he has been used in works to discuss the HIV/AIDS crisis, feminism, racism, colonialism and religion. He has been expanded beyond his original use and is now making strides in the art of a plethora of artists. He is also a useful icon in these works because his character is multifaceted. His story invokes discussion of strength, dedication and bravery. The reason that his iconography can be incorporated into variety of works with an activist nature is due to the traits that his character possesses.

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