Forgotten Plurality: a Cultural Analysis of Representations of St. Sebastian in the West

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter examines the changing focus of representation in the iconic figure of St. Sebastian. Since the Renaissance, St. Sebastian has been an outlet in Western art for expressing orthodox Christian concepts, but also discourses of sexual minority or sexual queerness. While it is generally agreed that the orthodox religious and the homoerotic form two principal streams of representation, there is some disagreement as to whether the eroticism lies in the subject or in the onlooker, who would project their desire onto the saint. There are also arguments over whether queer Sebastian is the product of new discourses of sexuality or a reflection of an ongoing tradition.
This chapter will address these questions, but will focus mainly on an anomaly of greater cultural studies interest. What is not commonly discussed with regard to St. Sebastian is that in France during the earlier 19th century, this paired discourse was itself destabilized. The formal experimentation of this period in art coincided with a thematic innovation for the figure of this saint, which came to be used as a foil for experimentation, departing from both previous discourses. Sebastians of the period sometimes co-opted his dual heritage in a critical way, articulating messages very different from either the doctrinal or the erotic.
In contrast, Western Sebastian representations after about 1865 are paradoxically conservative. They might be controversial in their homoeroticism, but do not show the nihilistic trauma or knowing satire of earlier 19th century pieces. The queer Sebastian discourse can now appropriate others in hostile ways. I corroborate this through analysing works taken from 20th century fiction, including a graphic novel, again with a particular but not exclusive focus on material from France.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSaints and Cultural Trans-/Mission
EditorsMichael Marten, Katja Neumann
Place of PublicationSankt Augustin bei Bonn
PublisherAcademia Verlag
Number of pages36
ISBN (Print)9783896656216
Publication statusPublished - 2013

Publication series

NameCollectanea Instituti Anthropos
PublisherAcademia Verlag


  • Sebastian
  • queer
  • saint
  • martyr
  • iconography
  • homosexuality
  • discourse


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