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The Patron Saint of Athletes – Saint Sebastian

July 14, 2011

Oral Hagiography of St. Sebastian

Image of St. Sebastian from

This week for my graduate seminar I had to develop an oral hagiography of a martyr.  This class has been interesting because it is so far removed from anything I study or anything I am interested in.  I selected St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes.  You never know what you will find when you start researching.  Here are some interesting things about the life of St. Sebastian.

Martyr:  St. Sebastian

Feast Day:  January 20

Patron Saint of Athletes (among other things including against enemies of religion, bookbinders, gardeners, hardware stores, lace makers, plague victims, police officers, and racquet makers)

He is considered a protector against the plague.

The current St. Sebastian’s church in Italy was built in 1611 by Scipio Cardinal Borghese.

St. Sebastian was born in Gaul and raised in Milan.  Sebastian chose the military life as a way to assist persecuted Christians.  He entered the army under the emperor Carinus in 283.

His speech to the jailed martyrs Marcus and Marcellianus also affected a woman named Zoe, for whom he made the sign of the cross on her mouth and cured her muteness.  The miracle inspired Zoe and her husband Nicostratus, one of the masters at the jail, to be baptized.  This and Sebastian’s curing him of gout were what inspired Roman governor Chromatius to convert.

Throughout all this, Sebastian continually concealed his religion.  After Carinus was defeated, Dioclesian and Maximian became co-emperors and made Sebastian a captain of a company of the pretorian guards.

At the same time, Chromatius retired to Campania and brought the new converts with him.  Both Sebastian and Polycarp wanted to accompany the group to continue their instruction, but one needed to remain in Rome.  Both, however, also had a mutual desire for martyrdom.  They left the decision to Pope Caius who determined Sebastian should remain.

In 286, persecution continued.  Zoe was apprehended while praying at St. Peter’s tomb and later martyred.  Other members of the group who went to Campania were eventually captured and tortured.  Nearly everyone converted by Polycarp and Sebastian became martyrs.

Sebastian was eventually martyred at Rome in 288.  The emperor Dioclesian sent him to be executed by the Maruitanian archers’ arrows.  Left for dead, St. Castulus’ widow Irene found him alive and nursed him back to health.  Upon his recovery, Sebastian refused to flee and returned to the city, where he would be discovered by Dioclesian.  This time, Dioclesian ordered Sebastian beaten with cudgels and his body thrown into a sewer.  A woman had Sebastian’s body removed from the sewer and buried it in the catacombs at the cemetery of Calixtus.

Pope Damasus built a church over Sebastian’s relics in 367, which is one of the seven ancient stationary churches at Rome.  The body of St. Sebastian was given to Hilduin, the abbot of St. Denys, by Pope Eugenius II.  Hilduin brought it into France and deposited it at St. Medard’s at Soissons in 826.

In 1564 Calvinists plundered St. Medard’s and threw St. Sebastian’s bones into a ditch.  They had also outlawed a benevolent society inspired by his legend two years before.  Fourteen years later the relics were found and enclosed into new shrines.  St. Sebastian’s head is kept at Estemach in Luxemburg.  Other portions of his relics are at St. Victor’s cathedral, the Theatins and Minims at Paris, Mantua, Malaca, Seville, Toulouse, Munich, Tournay, a Jesuit church in Antwerp, and in Brussels.

It likely was not until the 4th century that Sebastian became known for protecting against disease.  Paul the deacon wrote in 680 that Rome was freed from the plague by the patronage of St. Sebastian.  He is cited for saving Milan in 1575 in Milan and Lisbon in 1599 as well.

The Catholic Encyclopedia states that little about Sebastian’s life can be proven.  In a document dated to 354 (“Depositio martyrum”), it was said that Sebastian was buried on the Via Appia.  In the 5th century, St. Ambrose wrote that Sebastian was venerated in Milan.  The document confirmed Sebastian’s role in the imperial bodyguard, his secret acts of charity towards imprisoned Christians, the manner of his death, and burial of his corpse by St. Irene.  Again, though, some consider these stories “not worthy of belief” as the earliest depiction of Sebastian as a youth being shot by arrows appears during the Renaissance.  An earlier mosaic dated to 682, apparently shows him as a bearded man in imperial robes.

Depictions of St. Sebastian have been a subject of discussion since the Middle Ages.  Artists tend to choose a single event in a martyr’s life to represent the entire legend.  For St. Sebastian, it is almost always that of the youth being pierced with arrows.  This enforces the Christian principle of heroism, especially popular in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  Since so many different artists depict basically the same scene, Sebastian is an excellent example of the concept’s evolution as he became one of the most revered heroes of the time.  Sebastian exhibited the passive qualities of the uncomplaining martyr combined with the uncompromising activities of one who sacrificed everything for his beliefs.  He has inspired works of art from paintings and sculpture to dramatic writings and a collaborative musical oratorio, plus guilds and benevolent societies.

After an 1844 trip to Rome, author Charles Dickens wrote about how he felt bewildered over Italian artists’ depictions of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian.  He felt the artists had exploited the saint and criticized the representations because he felt they did not “have very uncommon and rare merits, as works of art, to justify their compound multiplication by Italian painters.”  Sebastian remained at the center of a 19th century cultural debate on the appropriate role of a Christian hero.  They considered his depictions as feminized masculinity, homoerotic desire, working-class consciousness, and sado-masochism as sanctioned by religious faith.  They considered Sebastian symbolic of a besieged Christianity and the heroic survival of a catastrophe.  During Medieval and Renaissance painting, the image of Sebastian was depicted almost as often as those of Jesus and Mary.

It is said that Dickens’ opinion is more aesthetic rather that religious due to Sebastian’s “unnatural masculine posture.”  Some Victorians viewed the arrow-ridden body of Sebastian more symbolically and homoerotically as that of a “penetrated male” in an ecstatic and submissive position.  Richard Kaye suggested that three distinct Victorian responses to the depiction of Sebastian:  erotic emancipation, self-assured Christian warrior, and that of a visual metaphor for decadence and unsanctioned homoerotic yearning.  Eventually, Kaye concludes that Sebastian became an emblem of the end of the Victorian epoch of “willfully embraced perversities.”

Frankie Paino depicted St. Sebastian’s executions in the poem, “The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian.”  Paino’s poem lends itself toward the Victorian erotic theme rather than a more stoic or religious undertone.  Sebastian’s first execution is described as “each shaft singing against the small breeze, going deep as love into the young boy’s flesh, slim thighs, chest oiled with sweat.”  This time, however, despite the initial Victorian homoerotic imagery, Paino adds that of “exotic women veiled in showers of perfumed hair” that cut him from the tree and nursed him back to health.

R.L. Stirrat wrote of a shrine in Sri Lanka that focuses on a young man who becomes possessed by St. Sebastian, eventually threatening  the role of the priest in the practice of Catholicism in the country.  Catholicism has always included saint-centered religious activities that complements the God-centered religious activity that focuses on the role of the priest.  In Sri Lanka, the saint took over the role of mediator with God within the minority Catholic community.  Stirrat wondered in his article the role of Buddhist theology as Buddhism relies on following the teachings of the holy man rather than through a priest’s mediation between believer and God.


Butler, Rev. Alban.  The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints: January, February, March.  (New York, 1895).  PDF E-Book via

Butler, Alban. Lives of the Saints. (Benziger Bros. ed., 1894),

Kaye, Richard A. “ ‘Determined Raptures’: St. Sebastian and the Victorian Discourse of  Decadence.” Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 27, No. 1 (1999), p. 269-303.

Loffler, Klemens. “St. Sebastian.” The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 12 (New York, 1912).

Paino, Frankie. “The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian” (poem). The Iowa Review, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Fall 1994), p. 31-32.

Stirrat, R.L. “The Shrine of St. Sebastian at Mirisgama: An Aspect of the Cult of the Saints in Catholic Sri Lanka.” Man, New Series, Vol. 16, No. 2 (June 1981), p. 183-200.

Zupnick, Irving L. “Saint Sebastian: The Vicissitudes of the Hero as Martyr” in Concepts of the Hero in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Norman T. Burns and Christopher J. Reagan, eds. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1975), p. 239-267.

The Lives of the Saints, PDF via

“Saint Sebastian.” November 14, 2010.

“St. Sebastian, Saint of the Day.” American Catholic.

“St. Sebastian.” Eternal Word Television Network.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2011 11:52 am


    I found your post after setting a Google Alert for my novel Saint Sebastian’s Head, whose release I announced on July 15, a day after your post. I researched St. Sebastian’s story because a character in my novel is a glass artist who makes sculptures of Sebastian’s martyrdom. I based this installation on one by Brazilian artist Ana Maria Pacheco titled The Dark Night of the Soul. In my story, St. Sebastian’s head as part of the installation becomes an important symbol for the characters. So I can confirm that Sebastian is still a popular subject for artists — although I was only vaguely aware of his meaning for some gay groups. I’m going to link to your post on my blog at

    • Rev. Bob permalink
      November 11, 2013 6:13 pm

      cooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooool! I’m a priest and i like it!

  2. Rev. Bob permalink
    November 11, 2013 6:12 pm

    cooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooool ! I am a priest I and I like it.

  3. lou permalink
    January 4, 2014 7:51 pm

    I still don’t know why St. Sebastian was called the patron of athletes and is this for all sports fields??

    • February 12, 2014 3:13 pm

      I never found out why he was named the Patron Saint of Athletes. However, I do believe it is for all sports.

      Thanks for the comment!


  1. St. Sebastian's Story - LeAnn Neal Reilly, author of The Mermaid's Pendant

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