(traditionally died January 20
, 287) was a Christian saint
, who is said to have been killed while the Roman emperor Diocletian
engaged in the persecution of Christians
in the 3rd century. He is commonly depicted in art and literature tied to a post and shot with arrows. But he did not die from the arrows; after the emperor discovered he was still alive, he was killed by a club.
The details of Sebastian's martyrdom were first elaborated by Ambrose of Milan
(died 397), in his sermon (number XX) on the 118th Psalm. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, states that Sebastian came from Milan and that he was already venerated there in the fourth century.
According to Sebastian's fifth-century Acta, still attributed to Ambrose by the seventeenth-century hagiographer Jean Bolland, and the briefer account in Legenda Aurea, he was a man of Gallia Narbonensis who was taught in Milan and appointed as a captain of the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian and Maximian, who were unaware that he was a Christian.
Sebastian was reportedly known for having encouraged in their faith two Christian prisoners due for martyrdom, Mark and Marcellian, who were bewailed and entreated by their family to forswear Christ and offer token sacrifice. His aura cured a woman of her muteness, and the miracle instantly converted seventy-eight people.
According to tradition, Mark and Marcellian were twin brothers and deacons. They were both married, and from a distinguished family. They both lived in Rome with their wives and children. The brothers refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and were arrested. They were visited by their father and mother, Tranquillinus and Martia, in prison, who attempted to persuade them to renounce Christianity.
Sebastian ended up converting Tranquillinus and Martia, as well as Saint Tiburtius, the son of Chromatius, the local prefect. Nicostratus, another official, and his wife Zoe were also converted. According to the legend, Zoe had been been a mute for 6 years. However, she made known to Sebastian her desire to be converted to Christianity. As soon as she had, her speech returned to her. Nicostratus then brought the rest of the prisoners; these were 16 people who were also converted by Sebastian.
Chromatius and Tiburtius became converts; Chromatius set all of his prisoners free, resigned his position, and retired to the country in Campania.
Mark and Marcellian, after being concealed by a Christian named Castulus, were later martyred, as were Nicostratus, Zoe, and Tiburtius.
Diocletian reproached Sebastian for his supposed betrayal, and "he 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 pincushion is full of pricks, leaving him there for dead. Miraculously, the arrows did not kill him. The widow of St. Castulus
, St. Irene of Rome
, went to retrieve his body to bury it, and found he was still alive. She brought him back to her house and nursed him back to health. The other residents of the house doubted he was a Christian. One of those was a girl who was blind. Sebastian asked her "Do you wish to be with God?", and made the sign of the Cross on her head. "Yes," she replied, and immediately regained her sight. Sebastian then stood on a step and harangued Diocletian as he passed by; the emperor had him beaten to death and his body thrown in a privy. But in an apparition Sebastian told a Christian widow where they might find his body undefiled and bury it "at the catacombs by the apostles."
Of the miraculous effect of the example of Sebastian, Legenda Aurea reports
- "And Saint Gregory telleth in the first book of his Dialogues that a woman of Tuscany which was new wedded was prayed for to go with other women to the dedication of the church of Sebastian, and the night tofore she was so moved in her flesh that she might not abstain from her husband, and on the morn, she having greater shame of men than of God, went thither, and anon as she was entered into the oratory where the relics of Saint Sebastian were, the fiend took her and tormented her before all the people."
Sebastian was also said to be a defense against the plague. Legenda Aurea transmits the episode of a great plague that afflicted the Lombards in the time of King Gumburt, which was stopped by the erection of an altar to Saint Sebastian in the Church of Saint Peter in the Province of Pavia.
Location of Remains
The remains asserted to be those of St. Sebastian are currently housed in Rome in a basilica that was built by Pope Damasus I
in 367 (Basilica Apostolorum
), on the site of the provisional tomb of St. Peter
and St. Paul
. The church, today called San Sebastiano fuori le mura
, was rebuilt in the 1610s, under the patronage of Scipio Borghese
Depictions in art and literature
The earliest representation of St Sebastian
is a mosaic in the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
(Ravenna, Italy) dated between 527 and 565. The right lateral wall of the basilica contains large mosaics representing a procession of 26 Martyrs, led by Saint Martin and including Saint Sebastian. The Martyrs are represented in Byzantine style, lacking any individuality, and have all identical expressions.
As a protector from the plague, Sebastian was formerly one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers (until the suppression of that cult in 1969) . The connection of the martyr shot with arrows with the plague is not an intuitive one. In Greco-Roman myth, Apollo, the archer-god is the deliverer of pestilence; the figure of Sebastian Christianizes this familiar literary trope. The chronicler Paul the Deacon relates that Rome was freed from a raging pestilence in 680, by the patronage of this saint.
Sebastian, like Saint George, was one of a class of military martyrs and soldier saints of the Early Christian Church, whose cults originated in the 4th century and culminated at the end of the Middle Ages, in the 14th and 15th centuries, both in the East and the West. Details of their martyrologies may provoke some skepticism among modern readers, but certain consistent patterns emerge that are revealing of Christian attitudes. Such a saint was an athleta Christi, an "athlete of Christ", and a "Guardian of the heavens"
Saint Sebastian is the patron and protector saint of the cities of Qormi (Malta), while he is the patron saint of Caserta (Italy). Saint Sebastian is also the patron saint of the cities of Palma de Mallorca and San Sebastián (Spain), where on January 20--a public holiday--there are street festivities and celebrations.
He is also the patron of San Sebastian College - Recoletos, Manila, one of the Philippines' foremost institutions for higher learning. Beside it, is the sanctuary of the Parish of San Sebastian, which is also the Philippines' National Shrine of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.
In the Greek Orthodox Church, the feast day of Sebastian the Martyr is December 18. In the Roman Catholic Church, his feast day, set on January 20, is designated an optional memorial.
Officially, Saint Sebastian is the patron saint of the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Informally, in the tradition of the Afro-Brazilian religious syncretism Umbanda, Saint Sebastian is often associated with Ogum, especially in the state of Bahia, in the northeast of the country, while Ogum in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul is more likely to be associated with Saint George.
Saint Sebastian is also regarded as the Patron Saint of soldiers generally, of infantrymen particularly, of athletes generally, of archers particularly and of municipal police officers.
Saint Sebastian is officially the Patron saint of the city of [Chepén], La Libertad, in the north of Peru. On January 20 is the major festivities and celebrations of the citys dog.
Saint Sebastian in popular culture
Versions of the iconic image of Sebastian impaled with arrows appear in:
- Claude Debussy wrote the incidental music for Gabriele d'Annunzio's mystery play Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, inspired by the story of the saint
- Philip Glass includes a short musical piece titled "Saint Sebastian" in his score for the film Mishima.
- In the film Blown Away, the statue of St Sebastian symbolically appears throughout the film.
- In the Canadian film Lilies, a rehearsal for a church's re-enactment of the scene plays a prominent role in the storyline and iconography.
- Followers of Saint Sebastian figure prominently in Loren D. Estleman's "Amos Walker" novel, "Nicotine Kiss". In the private eye novel, they meet at "The Church of the Freshwater Sea".
- The novel "Hotel Transylvania", by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, features a villain named Saint Sebastien.
- The rock band Instar wrote a song titled "Saint Sebastian" describing a child's reacting to a painting of the saint.
- In the Val Lewton RKO film I Walked with a Zombie a figurehead of St. Sebastian is featured in the garden of the Hollands' residence, and is the name of the fictional island that the movie takes place on. The same island also features in Lewton's The Ghost Ship, and the RKO Carney and Brown film Zombies on Broadway
- Several films have been made about the life of Sebastian, mostly focusing on his iconic execution. See Bavo Defurne's 1996 short film, Saint
- The television show Millennium has an episode entitled "The Hand of St. Sebastian" (2nd season).
- St. Sebastian's way of death was also used in La Mujer de Judas as the killer kills Ernesto the same way.
- Saint Sebastian is mentioned in the poem The Hat Lady by Linda Pastan.
- In the 1976 film Carrie, the title character has a statue of Saint Sebastian in her cupboard as she prayers, not a statue of Jesus as commonly assumed. Carrie's mother dies in a way that is similar in look to the statue.
- In 1984 by George Orwell, Winston Smith imagines killing the dark-haired woman during the Two Minutes Hate "like Saint Sebastian".
- St. Sebastian church is the church in Godfather 3
Discussion of the image of St. Sebastian in the paintings of Mantegna