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  • Zia Ravenscroft

UniQ: RIP Saint Sebastian You Would’ve Loved Masochism

Words by Zia Ravenscroft (he/they)

“You know, sometimes he’s called the patron saint of piercings,” the piercer doing my navel stud said last month. He was referring to a tattoo on my torso, of Christian martyr and masochistic icon Saint Sebastian. He’s actually the patron saint of protection against plague, athletes, and archers, but close enough. Sebastian was sentenced to death during Christian persecutions in Ancient Rome, yet he miraculously survived being shot with arrows. He was healed by Saint Irene of Rome, and was later clubbed to a much less sexy death on the Emperor Diocletian’s orders.

My tattoo is complete with his hands bound overhead, droplets of blood from his puncture wounds, and a facial expression I asked my artist to redraw to make it hornier. I also asked for top surgery scars on his chest. I like my Catholic saints how I like my friends and lovers—transsexual. 

When I showed my (extremely cool) grandfather my new tattoo, he joked about it being my own side wound like Christ himself, but asked why I got some random religious guy on my body forever when I’m firmly atheist. Why indeed? I’m certainly not the first gay artist to be obsessed with Sebastian. He’s been immortalised in poetry by Frank O’Hara, a movie by Derek Jarman, and was described by Oscar Wilde as the ideal of human beauty.

Paintings of Saint Sebastian have had queer significance since the 1400s, where he was one of very few male saints to be painted nude alongside Christ. Renaissance artist Giorgio Vasari said that viewers of one work depicting the martyr in his pierced glory, by Fra Bartolomeo, would ‘sin at the sight of it.’ And paintings of Sebastian only became more androgynous and erotically charged throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, despite the Catholic church forbidding artists from showing saints with ‘beauty exciting lust.’ Artists began concealing his nudity with loincloths or ambiguously draped fabric, yet the newly subtle suggestiveness only added to his homoerotic appeal. The rather obvious penetration metaphor of the arrows entering his flesh helped, too.

Every time I see a Sebastian artwork online I repost it with ‘built like this btw’ as a caption. My friends make fun of me for how often I reference him in my poetry. For over a year, my Instagram profile picture has been an Alison Bechdel drawing of the saint. My personal favourite painting of him (and my phone wallpaper) is a Guido Reni from 1625, which the Auckland Art Gallery owns. I cried when I saw it in person for the first time last year.

To me and so many others across history, he represents pleasure in his torment, and submission to mortality itself. He is divine in his ecstasy and suffering alike, finding balance and even beauty in pain. Saint Sebastian reminds me to endure even when life is hard, and to eroticise the impossible. You’re going to be pierced with arrows anyway—you may as well enjoy it.


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