A beautiful young man

St Sebastian has become as important a part of the history of art as of the history of Christianity itself. Although originally depicted as an older, bearded man, the saint was soon depicted as an idealised, and even erotic, figure of a young man, tied to a tree and shot with arrows.

What we know of St Sebastian (d circa 288) comes from the 4th-century Bishop of Milan, St Ambrose, who in a sermon stated that Sebastian came from the city and was celebrated there. He was popular with soldiers and athletes. As a result, he was presented as an image of the body beautiful and his medals were worn at sporting events.

According to later biographies of Sebastian, the saint came from the province of Gallia Narbonesis, which roughly corresponds to Languedoc, Provence and Rhône Valley. He was educated in Milan and came to be a captain in the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian and Maximian. The former was ferociously anti-Christian and Sebastian was at this point already of the faith, which he kept a secret.

Arrows filled his body

After encouraging Mark and Marcellian, two prisoners in his care who were facing execution for refusing to sacrifice to the empire, Sebastian then converted their parents and 76 other people. Among these were some important officials in Roman society. When word reached the emperor he was furious.

Sebastian was led to a field to be shot with arrows. It is said that the arrows filled his body, yet when his body was retrieved it was found that he was still alive.

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