Saint Sebastian

June 18, 2018

Mantegna-049-St.Sebastian-1480-1485The unfortunate Saint Sebastian – I guess the saints are all unfortunate, since they all meet grisly deaths, but then, that’s their good fortune from the Christian point of view… -is a familiar figure to lovers of art history.  Also familiar to male lovers of men, since his image is popular as a gay icon in wildly different forms, many in the realm of kitsch, or camp, as it were.  I get that he’s a young, strapping fellow (patron saint of athletes for some reason), and the voyeuristic, masochistic, erotic aura that hangs, or can be projected about him.  (Did Oscar Wilde really say that in this image he looked a bit like a “mournful pin cushion,” or is that just something my girlfriend told me in high school?)  Once he was released from his martyrdom in Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde did adopt the pseudonym, Sebastian Melmoth, the first part for the saint? and the second a reference to the long-suffering protaganist of Maturin’s early 19th century gothic tale Melmoth the Wonderer.

This image by Mantegna is just one of the most famous showing the saint’s martyrdom by archery at the order of Diocletian, or is it?  Yes, those two fellows in the right foreground have done their duty, and tied and shot up Sebastian, a former member of the emperor’s Praetorian Guard who kept his Christianity secret so that he could give help to the persecuted Christians.  He was found out, and Diocletian ordered him killed…but is he dead?  He appears alive to me!

I know that saints are the subjects and producers of miracles all the time, but if their sainthood is based on being murdered for their faith, shouldn’t they…er…be dead?  This set me off on a little art historical research regarding the saint, and I quickly found that he did not die from the fusillade of arrows, although you can hardly accuse the archers of negligence in carrying out orders.  He did survive, miraculously, and was fetched and tended by Saint Irene.  During the middle ages, because he had survived his execution by arrows, he was invoked for help against diseases, especially the bubonic plague.

Since he was undeterred by fear of death, and since his cover was quite obviously blown, his next move after recovering from his wounds was to go to the emperor’s palace, hide in an alcove or stairwell, and furiously upbraid Diocletian for his sins when he finally happened by.  Naturally, the emperor was furious:  not only was the man not dead as he had ordered, but he returns and insults him directly!  Diocletian ordered his men to club Sebastian to death – perhaps considered a more certain technique – and then to throw his body into the sewer, sometimes noted as the cloaca maxima.  Eventually, his body was retrieved, but the scenes of his actual death, and subsequent disposal and retrieval are vastly less common in art history than the picturesque and unsuccessful first try.

Here we have the saint being pitched into the sewer, as painted by Lodovico Carraci.  His suspension in the air just as he is beginning to fall in seems awkward to me.

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The work below, by Altdorfer, shows the saint’s body being retrieved from the sewer, or at least from out of the muck, but friends who will bury him in the catacombs near the resting places of the apostles.  His body seems little the worse for his immersion in the sewer.

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Scenes of Sebastian’s actual execution by clubbing are a bit more plentiful:  here is one by Veronese.

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Josse Lieferinxe did a set of paintings of the saint for altarpiece dedicated to him, and this image shows him being beaten to death:  in the background the executioners dump his body into the sewer.

1493+-Josse Lieferinxe (Fr)-St Sebastian clubbed-- copy

Another beating, but I have not identified the painter.

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The three images below are from a tiny chapel dedicated to St. Sebastian in Venanson in southern France.  The chapel is not well documented on the internet, but the painter of these frescoes is identified as Giovanni Baleison.

If you need a reason to take a trip to Provence, this site, and the even less documented one in Roubion should be reason enough.  The only photos of individual panels of the frescoes I could find online are licensed, and have a copyright logo watermark.  The two below show the saint being dumped into and retrieved from the sewer.

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This image of the chapel frescoes shows the panel of the saint’s dumping in situ.

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Finally, to bring us back nearer to the present, we have an image of a studio session with Muhammad Ali posing as Saint Sebastian, part of series of famous men standing in for the saint.

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Sebastian’s head, or “skull cap” is preserved here, supposedly.

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Warhol’s Work

December 19, 2012

Warhol
Watching the movie Capote (2005) yesterday, and it was pretty good, I got to thinking of Warhol.  Turns out he was fascinated by Capote and his portrait on the back of his first book.  Seems a lot of people were taken by the photo, and it became as much, or more of a cause célèbre than the book itself.  Warhol wrote fan letters to Capote and called his first gallery show Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote.  

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Yes, I think the visual influences are clear.

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There’s a scene in the movie when Capote is talking to the New Yorker editor, William Shawn, after his successful preview reading from In Cold Blood:  he asks breathlessly, “Should we do more readings?”  Shawn replies that they should not; they will let people talk about the book, build interest.  “Let them do the work.

Well, nobody could accuse Capote of not doing his work.  As one character in the film remarks, “You’re nothing if not hard-working.”  But then there’s Warhol…

I think Warhol realized that popular culture in the early 1960s was ready to step lightly over the homosexual bar, and Capote’s unabashedly affected and effeminate manner were probably an inspiration to him.  His great insight was that if he just played himself straight, people would not know how to accept – process – his personality, and would assume he was ironical, sophisticated, in other words, an artist.  Then he could do the things he most wanted to do: get rich; hobnob with the rich and famous; be famous; and play with pictures other people made, while others did his publicity and produced critical laurels and justifications for him. He was dead on, and his blockbuster success was the proof.  The only irony was that he assumed others would assume he was an ironist, and he was happy to let them.

There’s really not  much to Warhol’s work, unless you enjoy his colors and designs, at least, not much that isn’t created and put there by others.  But that never mattered to him.


Angels in America

November 25, 2011

When Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, the Regan era and the full-bore ravages of AIDS in America were not far behind us.  The play, at least as it is (faithfully, I’ve read) adapted in the 2003 HBO mini-series, deals with several emotionally churning themes – love, death, disease, the end of the Cold War, American assimilationism…well, those last two are emotional hot-button issues for some people.  The HBO series was highly praised, and when I watched the first part on a DVD, I was taken with it.  There was drama, there was suspense, there were spectacular sights and portents of great meaning.

There were also fine actors:  Al Pacino was great playing the “pole star of evil,” Roy Cohn, the right-wing hatchet man and all around corrupt operator, who hid is homosexual nature, or as he said, the fact that he “likes to fuck around with guys,” and that he was dying of AIDS.  Meryl Streep does her chameleon thing, playing several roles, but even though I am thoroughly used to that, her portrayal of a ratty orthodox rabbi in the opening knocked me out.  Jeffrey Wright was great as Cohn’s nurse and the friend to all.

But that was not enough.  Part II barely kept my attention, it petered out in a fit of sentimentality; the boy gets boy, boy loses boy plot lines were tedious, and one of the main characters, the guilt-ridden politico-Jew who abandons his AIDS stricken lover, was boring, trite, and basically repellent.  In the end, I felt I’d been had:  What was that mess about anyway?  We should all be nicer to one another?  Without Pacino, I don’t think I could have made it through the show.  Thank you Roy Cohn for a wonderful experience.