Category Archives: Art

Art and Degas

I have been working this weekend on some promotions for my schools new art club.  This has gotten me to think about art, and though, Edgar Degas was characterized as an “old curmudgeon” this quote below is quite beautiful.

Young Spartans Exercising, also known as Young Spartans, is an oil on canvas painting by French impressionist artist Edgar Degas. The work depicts two groups of male and female Spartan youths exercising, though the subject matter of the painting has, in recent times, been challenged. The work is now in the permanent collection of The National Gallery in London.

Edgar Degas was a French artist famous for his work in painting, sculpture, printmaking and drawing. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism although he rejected the term, and preferred to be called a realist. A superb draftsman, he is especially identified with the subject of the dance, and over half of his works depict dancers. These display his mastery in the depiction of movement, as do his racecourse subjects and female nudes. His portraits are notable for their psychological complexity and depiction of human isolation.
Early in his career, he wanted to be a history painter, a calling for which he was well prepared by his rigorous academic training and close study of classic art. In his early thirties, he changed course, and by bringing the traditional methods of a history painter to bear on contemporary subject matter, he became a classical painter of modern life.

Southern Hospitality

Wishing you magnolia mornings and sweet tea afternoons.
Thank goodness for lazy warm days, with some sweet tea and southern hospitality.  I am very much looking forward to my day off tomorrow.  I’m glad the school gives us Good Friday as a holiday.

Auguste Rodin

The Thinker
Musée Rodin, Paris

Auguste Rodin on of my favorite sculptors was born  in Paris today in 1840. He began his art study at 14 in the Petite École and in the school of Antoine Barye, earning his living by working for an ornament maker. In 1863 he went to work for the architectural sculptor A. E. Carrier-Belleuse, who had a great influence on him. From 1870 to 1875 he continued in the same trade in Brussels and then briefly visited Italy. In the Salon of 1877 he exhibited a nude male figure, The Age of Bronze (1876; Paris). It was both extravagantly praised and condemned; his critics unjustly accused him of having made a cast from life. From the furor Rodin gained the active support and patronage of Turquet, undersecretary of fine arts. His Age of Bronze and St. John (1878) were purchased for the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris.

The government gave him a studio in Paris, where he worked the rest of his life with growing fame. From 1880 on Rodin worked intermittently on studies for a huge bronze door for the Musée des Arts décoratifs. It was inspired by Dante’s Inferno and was to be called the Gate of Hell. He never finished it. Among the 186 figures intended for it are Adam and Eve (1881; Metropolitan Mus.), The Thinker (1879-1900), and La Belle Heaulmière (both: Paris). These, together with his group The Burghers of Calais (Calais), completed in 1894, are among his most famous creations.

The Age of Bronze
Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Other ambitious works are his monuments to Balzac (1897; Paris) and to Victor Hugo (1909; Paris). Rodin is also known for his drawings, his many fine portrait busts, and his figures and groups in marble, such as Ugolino (1882), Danaïd (1885), The Kiss (1886), and The Hand of God (1897-98) in the Rodin Museum, Paris, and Pygmalion and Galatea and The Bather in the Metropolitan Museum, N.Y.C. He is best represented in the Rodin museums of Paris and Philadelphia, but fine examples of his work are included in many public collections throughout the world.

Rodin’s work is generally considered the most important contribution to sculpture of his century, although some recent critical opinion has found his allegorical works pretentious. Realistic in many respects, it is nevertheless imbued with a profound, romantic poetry. The Gothic, the dance, and the works of Dante, Baudelaire, and Michelangelo were major sources of inspiration. Rodin considered his work completed when it expressed his idea, and as a result his sculpture is varied in technique; some is polished, some is gouged and scraped, and some seems scarcely to have emerged from the rough stone. He worked long over his more important works, returning to them again and again but without injuring their essential vitality.


See biographies by F. Grunfeld (1987) and R. Butler (1993); studies by R. M. Rilke (1902 and 1907, rev. tr. 2004), S. Story (rev. ed. 1966), A. E. Elsen (1963, repr. 1967), R. Descharnes and J. F. Chabrun (tr. 1967), I. Jainu (1967), Y. Taillandier (1967), C. Lampert (1987), K. Varnedoe (2001), and A. E. Eisen (2003).

The Walking Man
Art Institute of Chicago
The Three Shades 

Petite Mort: Recollections of a Queer Public

Anonymous — Perry Street

Where was your first homosexual encounter? For many gay men of my generation and/or from rural America, the internet’s GayOLs (i.e. gay chatrooms on AOL, et. al.), Gay.coms, and Manhunts, provided some of our first gay encounters.  And for many gay men, especially those of a certain age and geography, it was in public. And for many men, that meant coming to New York City. Before AIDS and before the Giuliani crackdown, cruising created a sort of roughshod community, an underlying queerness of the streets that sowed the seeds of social and political action. In Petite Mort: Recollections of a Queer Public, artists Carlos Motta and Joshua Lubin-Levy curate a love letter-cum-souvenir to the Big Apple’s fading eroticism.

Aram Jibilian — Untitled

Seeking to create an “Atlas of Queer Affection” and question notions of intimacy, assimilation and gay politics, artists Carlos Motta — of the fascinating We Who Feel Differently documentary project on multi-national queer culture — and Joshua Lubin-Levy called upon an intergenerational group of over 60 gay men to submit drawings of spaces in the city where a public sexual encounter occurred.

Drawn from memory and depicting sites from Chinatown to The Rambles and the Twin Towers, the submissions were curated into a sexy, sardonic, meditative, and ultimately moving book. As subjective blueprint of the city, it values not simply the space “as is” but how it has been performed and engaged, highlighting the fundamental connection between public space and queer life. This ain’t your mamma’s NYC.

Aram Jibilian — Untitled
Anonymous — Perry Street

Who: Me and a Greek-German boy.

What: Public sexual encounter.

When: Summer 2010.
Where: Across from Perry Street, on the park overlooking the West Side piers.
How: After wandering aimlessly through the city, an invisible magnetic force led us there.

Aram Jibilian — Untitled

In this warm steamy men’s bathroom on the 6th floor of New York University’s Leon Shimkin Hall, I found a place to blow off some serious art school steam. There were always at least a couple of other men waiting.

Jean-Michel Sivry — West Side

It was Sunday. We marched westward through Bank, Perry, or Charles Street. At the crossing with Greenwich Avenue there were the trucks side-by-side. We reached the final avenue before the river. Guys passed beneath the decrepit structure of the elevated highway. On the other side, the docks, the wonderful wharves. In the vast warehouses in ruins, openings were used, doors had been opened, gaps in the walls. Inside: stairs, scales, holes through the floors, metal debris, spokes of light, glass canopies, panels collapsed… an architecture of desire.

Petite Mort: Recollections of a Queer Public (Forever & Today, 2011) features additional texts by Aiken Forrett, Eileen Myles, Joel Czarlinsky, Johan Andersson, José Esteban Muñoz, Kate Bornstein, and Tim Dean, amongst others. To purchase, visit Printed Matter (195 10th Ave., NYC; 212-925-0325) or e-mail Click here to preview in entirety.

Ode to Walt Whitman

Eakins was profoundly influenced by the ideas of Walt Whitman, with whom he became close friends, after painting his portrait in 1887-1888. Eakins’ carefully composed images of naked youths in arcadian landscape settings (such as The Swimming Hole, 1893-1895) constitute visual equivalents of Whitman’s poems, celebrating male beauty and comradeship. Eakins often painted scenes of all-male athletic activities, such as rowing (for example, The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake, 1873) and boxing (for example, Counting Out, 1888).

Ode to Walt Whitman
by Federico Garcia Lorca

By the East River and the Bronx
boys were singing, exposing their waists
with the wheel, with oil, leather, and the hammer.
Ninety thousand miners taking silver from the rocks
and children drawing stairs and perspectives.

But none of them could sleep,
none of them wanted to be the river,
none of them loved the huge leaves
or the shoreline’s blue tongue.

By the East River and the Queensboro
boys were battling with industry
and the Jews sold to the river faun
the rose of circumcision,
and over bridges and rooftops, the mouth of the sky emptied
herds of bison driven by the wind.

But none of them paused,
none of them wanted to be a cloud,
none of them looked for ferns
or the yellow wheel of a tambourine.

As soon as the moon rises
the pulleys will spin to alter the sky;
a border of needles will besiege memory
and the coffins will bear away those who don’t work.

New York, mire,
New York, mire and death.
What angel is hidden in your cheek?
Whose perfect voice will sing the truths of wheat?
Who, the terrible dream of your stained anemones?

Not for a moment, Walt Whitman, lovely old man,
have I failed to see your beard full of butterflies,
nor your corduroy shoulders frayed by the moon,
nor your thighs pure as Apollo’s,
nor your voice like a column of ash,
old man, beautiful as the mist,
you moaned like a bird
with its sex pierced by a needle.
Enemy of the satyr,
enemy of the vine,
and lover of bodies beneath rough cloth…

Not for a moment, virile beauty,
who among mountains of coal, billboards, and railroads,
dreamed of becoming a river and sleeping like a river
with that comrade who would place in your breast
the small ache of an ignorant leopard.

Not for a moment, Adam of blood, Macho,
man alone at sea, Walt Whitman, lovely old man,
because on penthouse roofs,
gathered at bars,
emerging in bunches from the sewers,
trembling between the legs of chauffeurs,
or spinning on dance floors wet with absinthe,
the faggots, Walt Whitman, point you out.

He’s one, too! That’s right! And they land
on your luminous chaste beard,
blonds from the north, blacks from the sands,
crowds of howls and gestures,
like cats or like snakes,
the faggots, Walt Whitman, the faggots,
clouded with tears, flesh for the whip,
the boot, or the teeth of the lion tamers.

He’s one, too! That’s right! Stained fingers
point to the shore of your dream
when a friend eats your apple
with a slight taste of gasoline
and the sun sings in the navels
of boys who play under bridges.

But you didn’t look for scratched eyes,
nor the darkest swamp where someone submerges children,
nor frozen saliva,
nor the curves slit open like a toad’s belly
that the faggots wear in cars and on terraces
while the moon lashes them on the street corners of terror.

You looked for a naked body like a river.
Bull and dream who would join wheel with seaweed,
father of your agony, camellia of your death,
who would groan in the blaze of your hidden equator.

Because it’s all right if a man doesn’t look for his delight
in tomorrow morning’s jungle of blood.
The sky has shores where life is avoided
and there are bodies that shouldn’t repeat themselves in the dawn.

Agony, agony, dream, ferment, and dream.
This is the world, my friend, agony, agony.
Bodies decompose beneath the city clocks,
war passes by in tears, followed by a million gray rats,
the rich give their mistresses
small illuminated dying things,
and life is neither noble, nor good, nor sacred.

Man is able, if he wishes, to guide his desire
through a vein of coral or a heavenly naked body.
Tomorrow, loves will become stones, and Time
a breeze that drowses in the branches.

That’s why I don’t raise my voice, old Walt Whitman,
against the little boy who writes
the name of a girl on his pillow,
nor against the boy who dresses as a bride
in the darkness of the wardrobe,
nor against the solitary men in casinos
who drink prostitution’s water with revulsion,
nor against the men with that green look in their eyes
who love other men and burn their lips in silence.

But yes against you, urban faggots,
tumescent flesh and unclean thoughts.
Mothers of mud. Harpies. Sleepless enemies
of the love that bestows crowns of joy.

Always against you, who give boys
drops of foul death with bitter poison.
Always against you,
Fairies of North America,
Pájaros of Havana,
Jotos of Mexico,
Sarasas of Cádiz,
Apios of Seville,
Cancos of Madrid,
Floras of Alicante,
Adelaidas of Portugal.

Faggots of the world, murderers of doves!
Slaves of women. Their bedroom bitches.
Opening in public squares like feverish fans
or ambushed in rigid hemlock landscapes.

No quarter given! Death
spills from your eyes
and gathers gray flowers at the mire’s edge.
No quarter given! Attention!
Let the confused, the pure,
the classical, the celebrated, the supplicants
close the doors of the bacchanal to you.

And you, lovely Walt Whitman, stay asleep on the Hudson’s banks
with your beard toward the pole, openhanded.
Soft clay or snow, your tongue calls for
comrades to keep watch over your unbodied gazelle.

Sleep on, nothing remains.
Dancing walls stir the prairies
and America drowns itself in machinery and lament.
I want the powerful air from the deepest night
to blow away flowers and inscriptions from the arch where you sleep,
and a black child to inform the gold-craving whites
that the kingdom of grain has arrived.

For more information and analysis of this poem, take a look at “Lorca’s Homographic Poetics of Nationalism” by Frederick Luis Aldama

Also see:

I would not consider this one of my favorite poems, but it is interesting in its own way. John K. Walsh speculates in his essay “Lorca’s Ode to Walt Whitman” that Lorca’s Cuban hiatus marked his “open passage into a homosexual mien, and the acknowledgment of his proclivities.”  As with most poetic coming outs, this is bold and expressive.

St. Sebastian in Art

To continue our look at St. Sebastian, I wanted to look at his depiction in art. Can a Christian saint be a gay icon? Apparently he can. Sebastian was a Christian martyr who died during the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 288. According to legend, he was born in Gaul (present-day France) and went to Rome to serve in the army. When officials learned that he was a Christian seeking converts, they ordered his execution by archers. Left for dead, he was nursed back to health by a Christian widow. He presented himself before the emperor, who condemned him to death by beating. His body was thrown into a sewer but was afterward found and buried. In Renaissance art he was often depicted as a handsome youth pierced by arrows.

The earliest representation of 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 Sebastian. The martyrs are represented in Byzantine style, lacking any individuality, and have all identical expressions.

Another early representation is in a mosaic in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli (Rome, Italy), probably made in the year 682. It shows a grown, bearded man in court dress but contains no trace of an arrow. The archers and arrows begin to appear by 1000, and ever since have been far more commonly shown than the actual moment of his death by clubbing, so that there is a popular misperception that this is how he died.

As protector of potential plague victims (a connection popularized by the Golden Legend) and soldiers, Sebastian naturally occupied a very important place in the popular medieval mind, and hence was among the most frequently depicted of all saints by Late Gothic and Renaissance artists, in the period after the Black Death. The opportunity to show a semi-nude male, often in a contorted pose, also made Sebastian a favourite subject. His shooting with arrows was the subject of the largest engraving by the Master of the Playing Cards in the 1430s, when there were few other current subjects with male nudes other than Christ. Sebastian appears in many other prints and paintings, although this was also due to his popularity with the faithful. Among many others, Botticelli, Perugino, Titian, Pollaiuolo, Giovanni Bellini, Guido Reni (who painted the subject seven times), Mantegna (three times), Hans Memling, Gerrit van Honthorst, Luca Signorelli, El Greco, Honoré Daumier, John Singer Sargent and Louise Bourgeois all painted Saint Sebastians.

The saint is ordinarily depicted as a handsome youth pierced by arrows. There were predella scenes, when required, often of his arrest, confrontation with the Emperor, and final beheading. The illustration in the infobox is the Saint Sebastian of Il Sodoma, at the Pitti Palace, Florence.

A mainly 17th-century subject, though found in predella scenes as early as the 15th century, was St Sebastian tended by St Irene, painted by Georges de La Tour, Trophime Bigot (four times), Jusepe de Ribera, Hendrick ter Brugghen and others. This may have been a deliberate attempt by the Church to get away from the single nude subject, which is already recorded in Vasari as sometimes arousing inappropriate thoughts among female churchgoers. The Baroque artists usually treated it as a nocturnal chiaroscuro scene, illuminated by a single candle, torch or lantern, in the style fashionable in the first half of the 17th century.

There exist several cycles depicting the life of Saint Sebastian. Among them, the frescos in the “Basilica di San Sebastiano” of Acireale (Italy) with paintings by Pietro Paolo Vasta.

Egon Schiele, an Austrian Expressionist artist, painted a self-portrait as Saint Sebastian in 1915. During Salvador Dalí’s “Lorca (Federico García Lorca) Period”, he painted Sebastian several times, most notably in his “Neo-Cubist Academy”. For reasons unknown, the left vein of Sebastian is always exposed.

In 1911, the Italian playwright Gabriele d’Annunzio in conjunction with Claude Debussy produced a mystery play on the subject. The American composer Gian Carlo Menotti composed a ballet score for a Ballets Russes production which was first given in 1944.

In his novella Death in Venice, Thomas Mann hails the “Sebastian-Figure” as the supreme emblem of Apollonian beauty, that is, the artistry of differentiated forms, beauty as measured by discipline, proportion, and luminous distinctions. This allusion to Saint Sebastian’s suffering, associated with the writerly professionalism of the novella’s protagonist, Gustav Aschenbach, provides a model for the “heroism born of weakness”, which characterizes poise amidst agonizing torment and plain acceptance of one’s fate as, beyond mere patience and passivity, a stylized achievement and artistic triumph.

In 1976, the British director Derek Jarman made a film, Sebastiane, which caused controversy in its treatment of the martyr as a homosexual icon. However, as several critics have noted, this has been a subtext of the imagery since the Renaissance.

Renaissance artists had access to history that we currently do not. There was obviously some reason why they chose to depict him as a beautiful young man. Since Sebastian was a Gaul, it could have been influenced by the beauty of The Dying Gaul, one of my all time favorite statues. The warrior is depicted as a beautiful man, but there is obviously love and lust for his beauty that the sculptor saw. It is also likely that Renaissance artists may have known some historical gossip about Sebastian, or the loving relationships that existed between the early brothers and sisters in Christ. Who knows why they depicted him as a beautiful young man, but they have left behind a question for history and the beauty of man.  Since many of the Renaissance artists were homosexuals, St. Sebastian allowed them to depict a beautiful naked (or nearly naked) young man, very similar to those young models they often used.


The Missing Text of the Gospel of St. Mark

More recently, but in a somewhat similar vein to Kirkup’s poem, the American playwright, Terrence McNally had the 1998 scheduled run of his new play, Corpus Christi, cancelled by the prestigious Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, following threats to kill the staff, burn down the theatre, and “exterminate” McNally. The reason for these threats was that McNally’s play told the story of a young gay man called Joshua and his sexual adventures with his 12 disciples. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in New York vowed to “wage a war” against any attempt to stage the play. While top playwrights, such as Tony Kushner, Edward Albee and Athol Fugard, urged the theatre to reverse its cancellation, accusing them of “capitulation to right-wing extremists and religious zealots”.

The homosexual associations being made with Jesus are not simply the work of gay artists seeking to appropriate conventional religious themes for the sake of blasphemy or controversy, but may actually be based in fact. In 1958, Professor Morton Smith of Columbia University uncovered a letter at the Mar Saba monastery, which mentioned a suppressed extract from the gospel of Mark. The letter was between Bishop Clement of Alexandria (one of the founding fathers of the early church), and a correspondent called Theodore, who wrote complaining about the Carpocratians, a Gnostic sect. The Carpocratians were using a passage from Mark’s gospel to justify their beliefs and practices, which were not shared by Clement and Theodore. In his reply to Theodore, Clement congratulated him on his opposition to the Carpocratians, and then wrote a dissertation on the passage in question, quoting the passage in its entirety. What is remarkable is that this passage does not appear in the canonical New Testament today, but was obviously current at the time. It is from Mark chapter 10 (between verses 34 and 35), and tells the story of the raising of Lazarus:

And the youth, looking upon him (Jesus), loved him and beseeched that he might remain with him. And going out of the tomb, they went into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days, Jesus instructed him and, at evening, the youth came to him wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God.

The expurgated text seems to suggest that the raising of Lazarus, rather than being a literal raising from the dead, was the kind of mystery school initiation that was common throughout the ancient world; something that the biblical scholar Barbara Thiering has emphasised in her recent work. What is also clear, and may have been obvious to the Carpocratians also, is that there seems to have been a homosexual element to the ritual, with the half-naked youth who loved Jesus being shown the mystery of the Kingdom of God during the final night of his instruction. If these inferences can be so readily made from the passage in Mark, it is somewhat understandable that the founding fathers of the Church would feel no guilt over removing it from the canon in order to preserve the image of Jesus that was in concordance with their particular ideas.

Source: Torture By Roses, “Sebastian~Salome” (pdf).

The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name

“The Love that Dares to Speak its Name” is a controversial poem by James Kirkup.  In fact, some might find the poem to be quite offensive, but after reading it and researching about it, I found it fascinating, even if it is blasphemous.  Maybe intellectual curiosity sometimes kills the cat, but I decided to write about it anyway.  It is written from the viewpoint of a Roman centurion who is graphically described having sex with Jesus after his crucifixion, and also claims that Jesus had had sex with numerous disciples, guards, and even Pontius Pilate.  If the poem was not about Jesus Christ and the centurion, Longinus, I would truly consider the poem beautiful and erotic in an odd necrophilia sort of way that is also quite disturbing.  Maybe it is either way, or maybe I have been reading too much Edgar Allen Poe in the high school English class that I am currently teaching.

The poem was at the centre of the Whitehouse v. Lemon trial for blasphemous libel, where the editor of Gay News—which first published in the poem in 1976—was convicted and given a suspended prison sentence.  In later years, Britain’s Royal Crown Prosecution Service attempted to charge the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement with a similar charge of blasphemous libel after a complaint by religious conservatives over a hypertext link on their web site to text of “The Love that Dares to Speak its Name” by James Kirkup.

The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name
By James Kirkup

As they took him from the cross
I, the centurion, took him in my arms-
the tough lean body
of a man no longer young,
beardless, breathless,
but well hung.

He was still warm.
While they prepared the tomb
I kept guard over him.
His mother and the Magdalen
had gone to fetch clean linen
to shroud his nakedness.

I was alone with him.
For the last time
I kissed his mouth. My tongue
found his, bitter with death.
I licked his wound-
the blood was harsh
For the last time
I laid my lips around the tip
of that great cock, the instrument
of our salvation, our eternal joy.
The shaft, still throbbed, anointed
with death’s final ejaculation

I knew he’d had it off with other men-
with Herod’s guards, with Pontius Pilate,
With John the Baptist, with Paul of Tarsus
with foxy Judas, a great kisser, with
the rest of the Twelve, together and apart.
He loved all men, body, soul and spirit. – even me.

So now I took off my uniform, and, naked,
lay together with him in his desolation,
caressing every shadow of his cooling flesh,
hugging him and trying to warm him back to life.
Slowly the fire in his thighs went out,
while I grew hotter with unearthly love.

It was the only way I knew to speak our love’s proud name,
to tell him of my long devotion, my desire, my dread-
something we had never talked about. My spear, wet with blood,
his dear, broken body all open wounds,
and in each wound his side, his back,
his mouth – I came and came and came

as if each coming was my last.
And then the miracle possessed us.
I felt him enter into me, and fiercely spend
his spirit’s finbal seed within my hole, my soul,
pulse upon pulse, unto the ends of the earth-
he crucified me with him into kingdom come.

-This is the passionate and blissful crucifixion
same-sex lovers suffer, patiently and gladly.
They inflict these loving injuries of joy and grace
one upon the other, till they dies of lust and pain
within the horny paradise of one another’s limbs,
with one voice cry to heaven in a last divine release.

Then lie long together, peacefully entwined, with hope
of resurrection, as we did, on that green hill far away.
But before we rose again, they came and took him from me.
They knew not what we had done, but felt
no shame or anger. Rather they were glad for us,
and blessed us, as would he, who loved all men.

And after three long, lonely days, like years,
in which I roamed the gardens of my grief
seeking for him, my one friend who had gone from me,
he rose from sleep, at dawn, and showed himself to me before
all others. And took me to him with
the love that now forever dares to speak its name.

Further Reading:

St. Sebastian: The Patron Saint of Homosexuals

Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni (c. 1616)

There is hardly anything unusual or particularly compelling about a gay icon who is young, beautiful, white, shirtless, and baby-faced. But what if this same boyish icon had emerged from a key historical antagonist of same-sex desire: the teachings of Christianity?

The case of Saint Sebastian, who was martyred in 287, animates several complex questions about the evolution of a gay idol, not the least of which is his so-called appropriation from the hallowed pages of Church history and martyrology to the visual, literary, and filmic works of numerous gay artists.

Although he has had various embodiments throughout history–plague saint in the Middle Ages, shimmering youth of Apollonian beauty throughout the Renaissance, “decadent” androgyne in the late nineteenth century–Sebastian has long been known as the homosexual’s saint.

Precisely when and how this role evolved may be related to details of St. Sebastian’s life, the earliest reference to which can be found in the Martyrology of 354 A.D., which refers to him as a young nobleman from either Milan or Narbonne, whose official capacity was commander of a company of archers of the imperial bodyguard.

According to the Church’s official Acta Sanctorum, Sebastian, serving under the emperors Diocletian and Maximian, came to the rescue of Christian soldiers, Marcellinus and Mark, and thereby confessed his own Christianity. Diocletian insisted that Sebastian be shot to death by his fellow archers; these orders were followed, and Sebastian was left for dead.

What is often neglected in later accounts is that Sebastian survived this initial attack after having been nursed by a “pious woman,” St Irene of Rome. Diocletian was required to order a second execution, and this time Sebastian was beaten to death by soldiers in the Hippodrome.

School of Nicolas Regnier, Saint Sebastian, 17th century

These details–based on accounts written centuries after Sebastian’s death and therefore largely apocryphal–may have helped form Sebastian’s subsequent reputation as a homosexual martyr since his story constitutes a kind of “coming out” tale followed by his survival of an execution that may be read symbolically as a penetration.

Renaissance representations of Saint Sebastian–mostly paintings of a tender, loin-clothed youth writhing in the ecstasy of the arrows that pierce him–are perhaps ground zero for his appointment as the patron saint of gay sensuality.

And for seemingly obvious reasons. Sebastian’s supple, near-naked body; the wink-wink symbolism of the penetrating arrows; his thrown-back head expressing a mixture of pleasure and pain; and his inviting gaze all readily contribute to his homoerotic appeal. But Sebastian’s entry into gay cultures in the first place most certainly involves his origins as an emblem of Christian godliness and martyrdom.

Same-sex desire is often, on many levels, about the crossing of lines, the overturning of sacred norms, the pleasure of the forbidden. Both the story of Sebastian and his subsequent role in modern gay cultures epitomize this subversive impulse: Sebastian revels in the pleasure of his own martyrdom as gay men revel in gazing upon an off-limits emblem of Christian holiness. By all accounts, Sebastian is a very good “bad object choice.”

Possibly his role as a plague saint may have generated associations between Sebastian and what, in a nineteenth-century medical context, was represented as a disease, homosexuality.

The question of whether Sebastian himself was gay is largely moot. While some historical records suggest a notable affection between the saint and his male superiors, after almost two thousand years Sebastian’s sexuality is not only greatly speculative, but also rather inconsequential.

However, while it is doubtful that a buried homosexual existence could justify his current camp popularity, it seems equally doubtful that his homoerotic associations can be explained away as the superficial afterthoughts, revisions, or cross-readings of a willful contemporary gay purview.

Saint Sebastian is not just represented in the visual arts during the Renaissance, but also in the written arts as well. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1600), for example, the character of Sebastian, saved from a shipwreck by Antonio, is the intense focus of Antonio’s love: “And to his image, which methought did promise / Most venerable worth, did I devotion.”

Mosaic of St. Sebastian, ca. 682 in San Pietro in Vincoli

Sebastian has been reinvented numerous times in history, from the middle-aged man in the mosaic at the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, not far from San Sebastiano Fuori le Mura, where the martyr’s punctured remains have lain since the year 287 AD. Here, in a niche to the left, is the seventh-century mosaic of a middle-aged man, bearded and in Byzantine court dress. Perhaps Sebastian’s oddest reinvention came in Thomas Mann’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “Grace in suffering – that is the heroism symbolised by St Sebastian,” said Mann; then, warming to his theme, he added: “The image may be bold, but I am tempted to claim this heroism for the German mind and German art.” The date was 1929. A decade later, German gays such as Mann were being rounded up and tortured in the Nazi concentration camps.

All of which is to say that the secret of Sebastian’s success may lie in his ability to be all things to all men. Along with the famous arrows, the symbol of his martyrdom is the rope that binds his hands; yet the shape-shifting Sebastian just won’t be tied down. The novelist and political activist Susan Sontag pointed out that his face never registers the agonies of his body, that his beauty and his pain are eternally divorced from each other. This made him proof against plague in 1348, and, in these ungodly times, it still does.


Les regrets de Joachim du Bellay

Les regrets de Joachim du Bellay

Sonnet CV (Originally French)

De voir mignon du Roy un courtisan honneste,
Voir un pauvre cadet l’ordre au col soustenir,
Un petit compagnon aux estat parvenir,
Ce n’est chose (Morel) digne d’en faire feste.

Mais voir un estaffier, un enfant, une beste.
In forfant, un poltron Cardinal devenir,
Et pour avoir bien sceu un singe entretenir
Un Ganymide avoir le rouge sur la teste:

S’estre veu par les mains d’un soldat Espagnol
Bien hault sur un eschelle avoir la corde au col
Celuy, que par le nom de Sainct-Père lon nomme:

Un bélistre en trois jours aux princes s’égaller,
Et puis le voir de là en trois jours dévaller:
Ces miracles (Morel) ne se font point qu’à Rome.

The Regrets of Joachim du Bellay

Sonnet 105 (English Translation)

Seeing King’s darling as an honest courtier,
Watch a poor junior order to support to the collar,
A little companion to achieve status,
This is something, my dear Morel, worthy of making a feast.

Yet seeing a footman, a child, a beast,
A rascal, a coward made a Cardinal
For having taken care of a monkey well,
A Ganymede wearing the red hat on his head

Is to be seen through the hands of a Spanish soldier
Although a high ladder to have the rope to the neck
The one, by the name of the Holy Father’s common names:

A scoundrel in three days for the princes are equal,
And then view there over three days to unwrap:
These are miracles, my dear Morel, that take place in Rome alone.

I searched the internet to the best of my ability to find an English translation of this poem and never found more than a few lines translated.  So with my limited ability at translating French and the use of Google Translate with some further help from various French-English Dictionaries, the English Translation above is my best attempt at a translation, though I am afraid I am not poetic enough to translate it in the style of a Petrarchan Sonnet in which it was originally written.  If anyone knows of a better English translation, please let me know.

Du Bellay

With that caveat at the beginning you may be wondering why I even posted this poem today.  For me, the answer is quite interesting.  The poem was written by the poet Joachim du Bellay, who lived in Rome while in the retinue of his relative Cardinal Jean du Bellay.  This sonnet is one of the two sonnets in his series Les regrets (1558) which expressed his scandalized opinion of Julius III during what became known as The Innocenzo Scandal.

The Innocenzo Scandal

Julius III

Pope Julius III (1550-1555) was born in Rome, September 10, 1487 as Giovanni Maria Ciocchi del Monte, he took the name Julius and studied law at Perugia and Siena. After taking holy orders, he became chamberlain to Pope Julius II.  Although an outstanding canonists, his careless homosexuality, especially as he got older, created a scandal for the papacy. In his sixties, he picked up a 14-year-old boy on the streets of Parma. The boy, ironically named Innocenzo was described as being stunningly beautiful, and Julius was so enraptured with him that he forced his brother to adopt Innocenzo.

In February of 1550 Cardinal Del Monte was elected pope as Julius III, and immediately made the 17 year old Innocenzo a Cardinal. Attempts to give the boy an education which could have prepared him for ecclesiastic office had already proven useless – “a few social graces, a few bits of knowledge, perhaps about the glories of the Classical world, and Innocenzo’s formal education was over.” Nevertheless, Julius issued a Papal Bull declaring Innocenzo legitimate – a necessary move given that persons of illegitimate birth were not eligible for membership of the College of Cardinals – and named him Cardinal Nephew, effectively in charge of all papal correspondence. But the role of secretary to the papacy proved manifestly beyond Innocenzo’s abilities, and so, in order to find a way for his favourite to retain the appearance of power without having any real responsibility, Julius upgraded a hitherto minor position, that of secretary intimus, which, as Cardinal Secretary of State, was eventually to become the highest of Vatican offices. Innocenzo, although relieved of all real duties, continued to be showered with benefices and high offices, much to the disgust of his fellow cardinals. As Cardinal he was given the titular church of San Callisto, in 1562.

Council of Trent

Cardinals who were more sensitive to the need to reform the mores of the Church in order to combat the Protestant Reformation protested in vain against Innocenzo’s elevation. Rumors also circulated around European courts. Gossip called the boy Julius’s “Ganymede.” The relationship became a staple of anti-papal polemics for over a century: it was said that Julius, awaiting Innocenzo’s arrival in Rome to receive his cardinal’s hat, showed the impatience of a lover awaiting a mistress, and that he boasted of the boy’s prowess. The Venetian ambassador, Matteo Dandolo, wrote that Cardinal Del Monte “was a little scoundrel”, and that the Pope “took him [Innocenzo] into his bedroom and into his own bed as if he were his own son or grandson”. Onofrio Panvinio wrote that Julius was “excessively given to intemperance in a life of luxuriousness and to his libido,” and, more explicitly characterized him as “puerorum amoribus implicitus” (‘entangled in love for boys’). One more mocking rumor made the rounds in Rome, saying that Innocenzo had been made a cardinal as a reward for his being the keeper of the pope’s monkey.

Remember that this scandal took place in one of the most tumultuous periods of the Roman Catholic Church. It occurred in the midst of the Wars of Religion that resulted from the Protestant Reformation.  As a Cardinal, Julius III, had served as the first president of the Council of Trent, which was the core movement in the Catholic Counter-Reformation.