St. Sebastian

The role of religious devotion in contemporary society is up for debate. Public versus private devotion has been a contested issue since the days of the Gospel writers; the question is raised, whether religion belongs in one’s home and personal life, or in the political sphere. If one truly believes something, can one be content to keep it to oneself? Even on the campus of Benedictine College, where public religious devotion is encouraged, the idea of devotion being kept as a purely spiritual pursuit can be at odds with the idea of applying one’s religious beliefs in the political sphere. The role of art in religious devotion can give insight into the function or opinion of devotion in the culture or time in which the piece was made. This gallery focuses on Saint Sebastian, who was martyred by being shat with arrows. The development of depictions of the saint throughout history, starting in the Middle Ages and ending in 2001, explores the role of devotion, as well as attitude towards religion and ideas about how man can relate to the spiritual realm.

This Medieval depiction of Saint Sebastian was part of an altarpiece containing an image of the crucifixion, as well as panels portraying Saint Martin and Saint Jerome. All three saints are painting against a gold background and are wearing clothes contemporary to the time period. This is interesting because in the Middle Ages, 'goldground' was used as a way to show that the saints were not of the world, but removed and in a spiritual realm. However, the contemporary dress of Saint Sebastian in this piece shows that the artist was trying to create a sense of connection between religious icons and those who asked for their intercession. It is important to note that this piece was intended for devotion and prayer, as it would be placed above an altar in a church.
Antonella da Messina also made this piece of Saint Sebastian for a church, meaning this image is still devotional. The shift in how he is represented is significant: the saint is depicted as he would have appeared at the time of his martyrdom, in pain and not dressed as a nobleman of the Venetian society. However, his martyrdom is placed against a background of a courtyard in Venice. While in the Medieval piece, the saint is shown to be similar to contemporary man, just elevated and ethereal, in this painting the artist seems to be trying to fit the reality of the saint's life and experience into the daily lives of the Venetians. Rather than an attitude of "saints are just like us, only in Heaven!" this painting suggests questions like, "How do we imitate saints in our everyday experiences? Are we martyring others?"
According to legend, after St. Sebastian was shot with arrows, St. Irene of Rome, a widow who was active in the Christian community of the time, went to bury him and found him to be still alive. She nursed him back to health, and he went on to warn Diocletian of his sins, resulting in his being clubbed to death. This piece is a jump of almost 400 years in the timeline; this is significant because in the 1800s religious devotion was not as outspoken or mandatory as in the 1400s. This piece is not devotional or altarpiece, it is simply a painting on a religious subject. The focus is not on Sebastian's martyrdom, but the aftermath. The viewer is invited not to put himself in place of the saint, but to imagine caring for him. The presence of St. Irene encourages viewers to ask how one ought to interact with the saints.
This is a slightly later depiction of Sebastian and Irene. The contrast between this painting and the former are significant: this painting is not in a naturalistic setting, and it is start in the interplay of its color. While in the former painting everything is muted, in this piece St. Irene appears almost as a figure of death, clothed in black, billowing robes, while St. Sebastian is white, emaciated, and glowing against the dark background. However, on a closer look, St. irene's face appears to be lit by St. Sebastian's glowing body. She is known and illuminated because of him. Perhaps this reinforces the message of the previous painting, or speaks to the intercessory power of the saints, that man can be made holy by their holiness.
This painting from the early 20th century depicts Sebastian very simply, with a single devotee. Sebastian's pose, while suggestive of the traditional, is also sensual. His hand is in his hair and the curves of his body are smooth and soft. The woman is very close to him, not as an attendant but outside of time, praying to him with her eyes downcast. This painting is less religious than the ones that have come prior; there is religious imagery, but presented in a much more worldly way. It favors simple, real life faith if it favors faith at all. This could be seen as praising practical virtues or a well ordered life: devotion to the higher things of this world, not necessarily of another. This suggests a secularization of religiosity at the time.
This painting places Sebastian back into nature, out of the civil world. However, his face is nearly totally obscured—if one looks very closely one can see a suggestion of it. The saint has become part of the background—perhaps of culture, something assumed rather than honored. The truth of his life has become obscured, something one can fit to his own reality.
This depiction of Saint Sebastian is, surprisingly, the most similar to the first two paintings of this gallery. The artist has explained that her figures are to be messengers of another dimension; they are viewed from the top down to show them as a bridge or a connection between Heaven and earth. Their nudity is a pure, truthful nudity that presents them as they genuinely are, while the monochromatic gold background quotes the goldground of the Medieval period and further serves to place them in an otherworldly, spiritual realm. This piece is not devotional, but it does present a striking return to traditional ways of viewing the saints while still being innovative and adding a new dimension to devotion.
According to the Tate Modern, where this piece is displayed, "Saint Sebastian is a two-channel colour video installation comprising footage of young Japanese women participating in an archery competition." In this work, only the title and the symbolism of arrows connects it to the devotion to the saint. This speaks to an abstraction of religious culture; in stark opposition to the Saint Sebastian painting of the same year, which urges a reevaluation of the spiritual in modern life, this work treats religiosity almost as pop culture or something to be referenced. It also introduces the idea of cultural difference, as the significance of archery and arrows is very different in Japanese and Buddhist cultures than in Christian, though the Christian culture is the one that prevails. Tan's film is not available on YouTube, but attached is a video of the ceremony she depicts.
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