St Sebastian, who was an early saint and martyr killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians, is commonly referred to as a gay male icon.

Wikipedia reads:

British director Derek Jarman made a film, Sebastiane, which caused controversy in its treatment of the martyr as a homosexual icon. However, as several critics have noted, this has been a subtext of the imagery since the Renaissance.

After reading the referenced newspaper article, I'm still unsatisfied and I want to demand a fuller explanation indicating, possibly, specific and academic references.

Can anybody help me?

  • 3
    Could you please translate the text in Portuguese?
    – Voitcus
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 12:11

3 Answers 3


With the invention of the printing press came not only books, but artwork intended for mass production. The first major artist to use printmaking as his medium was the otherwise anonymous Master of the Playing Cards, who, true to his name, made his living creating beautifully elaborate engravings for playing cards.

Playing cards of the time featured religious and secular art, as well as, you know, nekkid ladies. The Master of the Playing Cards depicted St. Sebastian as an attractive male figure study in what could be interpreted by some as a seductive pose, inadvertently creating the first mass-market male pin-up in Renaissance Europe. Since then, a handsome St. Sebastian in coquettish poses has been done and done again by the later masters.

The linked wiki page has a copy of the scandalously salacious engraving, if you're into that sort of thing (Renaissance art and the history of mass media, I mean.)

  • 1
    So, TL;DR is that he became a gay male icon because there existed a good looking popular image of him, NOT for anything even remotely related to homosexuality about him or his life or any literary work about him?
    – DVK
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 10:59
  • 3
    @DVK - Religious rationale for the affinity came after the publishing of the etching... if anything, his story is aimed at heterosexual women. Good looking soldier, shot full of arrows for his faith, secretly nursed back to health by a beautiful woman of the same faith. All the hallmarks of a historical romance novel. Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 11:49

Have a look at Michael Angelo's sistine chapel and it will be found that the pose of Mr. Sebastian in most of its illustrations, complies with the artistic evaluation of the time, and the sistine chapel is a good example.

It was consider the movement of human anatomy in a continuity of lines or shapes, giving a feminine twist. The mentality of today has no business with the art. The fig leaves, come to memory. According to the information available at the time of the first image; 'he' was tied to a tree, for the execution.

The homosexual connotations are a product of the 20's century,and the sexual preference of Mr. Sebastian, is pure speculation. [This is from a nonbeliever]


If you take sistine chapel - you have another artwork from a gay artist of this time. You should consider, about 30-50% of Catholic personnel were homosexual, as today, due to the celibacy. You find homoerotic art in every 3rd church - I'm looking for it when I visit a church.

The 1500 Sebastian was a widely painted coverboy - I've seen about 8 paintings from this time in Dresden, one more dubious than the other. Yes, and I can differ just aesthetic art from erotic. You have a half naked Jesus in a church, which is no way erotic - and then a sebastian that is red hot.

And there is nothing bad about erotic art - in every time artists tried to find an excuse to paint half or completely nude women, even in church art.

  • Welcome to History.SE! As a new user, I'd advise you that we prefer answers here to reference either documented facts, or at least be references to the thoughts of others on the event in question, rather than merely the poster's own personal impressions.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 13:33

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