And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

torsdag 20. januar 2011

Pain as Erudition

Today is St. Sebastian's day and because I find his place in cultural history interesting, this blogpost is dedicated to him and what I consider to be the first stage of his martyrdom.

Sebastian is a saint whose life is sufficiently obscure to allow for creative biographies. Of the historical figure little is known or can be proven except that he was a martyr. A vita, or saint's biography, from the 5th century dates his death to 286, in the time of Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians. According to this biography he was an officer in the imperial bodyguard and in secret performed charitable deeds to fellow Christians. Upon discovery he was placed before a group of Mauretanian archers and shot, but after the execution he was taken care of by the widow Irene - herself canonised - and restored back to strength. His final martyrdom happened at a later stage, when he was killed with a club.

The earliest depiction of St. Sebastian probably dates from the end of the 7th century and portrays a bearded man dressed as a courtier. The arrow-pierced - and naked - body appears in the Renaissance, perhaps because it was a subject which allowed the painters to portray what Renaissance artists considered the ultimate motif: the nude male, or what Michelangelo would term as ignudo.

Sebastian is in Renaissance art depicted not only as a naked or semi-naked man, but also as a young and muscular man. His iconography bears strong resemblance to that of Apollon and there has probably occurred some conflation along the way, either deliberate or not. The naked man was to the Renaissance artists an ideal way of testing their talents, as this motif would give them opportunity to portray a vibrant anatomy in various positions.

Three of the finest - and most disturbing - examples of St. Sebastian in art have been created by Andrea Mantegna (ca. 1431-1506) and are shown below, each accompanied by a poem written for the painting in question.

Triptych for Saint Sebastian

After Mantegna

Apollonian Archery

That fine Apollonian archery,
Piercing the faithful flesh
Makes not martyrdom manifest,
But suffering,
                    a suffering that in itself
Holds no catharsis, but suggests
Salvation for the plagued
By demonstrating that knowledge,
That intimate knowledge, of pain,
Promising comfort.
- December 25-29 2010

The Passion of Saint Sebastian
Words grow out of the speechless mouth, pain flows
In quiet cadence through the pierced veins; coiled
About a marble pillar, the saint writhes
In holy agony to ascertain
The soul's endurance in a heathen time
By fortitude that makes not merely soul
But also flesh immortal, as the hands
Of artists hence assail the dual challenge
To merge emotion and anatomy
According to the tastes of benefactors.
- December 25-29 2010

Tu de peste huiusmodi
Me deffende et custodi
- O Sancte Sebastiane, Guillaume Dufay

A Prayer to Saint Sebastian

In your fashion and according to your manner
Defend me, O Martyr, from Death's bitter bodkin
And as you were with me at Azincourt come forth
Again to aid me in my dire need, as blots
Black as sin appears upon my flesh to blight me,
Poor wretch, and make my living days a dream of death,
Tempting my hand to guide the arrow through my skin
That life may escape this breathing, black'ning carcasse.
Help me, O Martyr, that neither sin nor sickness
May coax me to damnation at this final hour,
But ease my tribulation that I may die and live.
- December 26 2010


Apollonian archery: Saint Sebastian is patron saint of archers and athletes, and was considered to be willing to assist in case of plague. His patronage of archers is obvious since his martyrdom - or rather its first stage - is connected to archers. Saints usually - and logically - becomes the patrons of their trespassers' crafts. His connection to Apollon may derive from the imagery of the Grecian god as a deliverer of plague, a delivery he would perform with his bow and arrows. Also his appearance as a muscular young man may have its root in depictions of Apollo.

A prayer to Saint Sebastian: The epigraph is taken from Guillaume Dufay's (1397?-1474) motet O Sancte Sebastiane which may have been composed during an outbreak of plague in Ferrara. The excerpt loosely translates as "In your fashion guard and defend me from the plague". 

Azincourt: Also spelled Agincourt. In the battle of 1415 the English forces vanquished the French. There were archers on both sides, so the nationality of the praying persona is unsettled. 

blots black as sin: A symptom of the bubonic plague.

that I may die and live: To despair is considered a deadly sin by Catholics since this emotion is considered to question God's omnipotence. To despair on one's death bed would be even more disastrous since desperation then would be final and irredeemable, and if this despair were to lead to suicide redemption would be considered hopeless to attain.

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