If you have taken a course in art history, or even just flipped through a picture encyclopedia of famous paintings, chances are you've seen the picture of a handsome young man bound to a stake and shot full of arrows. That is Sebastian, who is commemorated on this day, January 20, in various church calendars. Artists like Holbien, Mantegna, Ribera and Veronese were fascinated with him. His was a rare case--he was martyred twice.
Why was Sebastian treated so cruelly? As with so many of the early saints, we have barely more than legend to go on. The earliest accounts say that he was a respected soldier in the armies of the Roman Emperor--perhaps even an officer in the Praetorian guard. (The artists are misleading when they make him appear so young.) Although he was not a clergyman, Sebastian used his many contacts to spread the story of Jesus. When the army persecuted Christians, he secretly encouraged the converts to stand firm. Two of the prisoners that he helped in this way were the twin brothers Marcus and Marcellinus. Under torture, they were about to give in to the pleas of their families and deny their faith when Sebastian urged them to stand fast and die for Christ.
In 286, Roman persecution of Christians grew severe. The bishop of Rome and many leading Christians went into hiding, protected by a court officer who had become a Christian. A traitor betrayed Sebastian to the emperor. Diocletian ordered his Mauretanian archers to kill the bold soldier. They shot Sebastian many times and left him for dead.
A holy widow named Irene, whose husband had been martyred earlier, came to bury Sebastian. She detected faint breathing and took him home to nurse him. Sebastian recovered.
Most men would have seen all they wanted of the cruel emperor. But Sebastian realized that Diocletian needed to be warned of his soul's peril. Bravely he placed himself near a stairway where he knew the emperor must pass. When Diocletian appeared, Sebastian called to him, charging him with wrongdoing toward Christians.
Diocletian was startled at seeing Sebastian still alive. For a moment he could not speak. Then, recovering himself, he ordered the Christian soldier beaten to death. This time Sebastian's body did not survive. He was thrown into a sewer. A Christian lady named Lucina recovered the corpse and buried it in the catacombs. Damasus, who became bishop of Rome in 366, less than a century later, built a church at the site in Sebastian's honor.
- Butler, Alban. Lives of the Saints.
- Loffler, Klemens. "St. Sebastian." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- "Sebastian, St." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- "St. Sebastian, M." http://www.cin.org/saints/sebastn.html
- Various other encyclopedia and internet articles.
Last updated May, 2007.