In Rome, in the catacombs, the natal day of St. Sebastian the martyr, who was captain of the first cohort. As a Christian he was condemned to be tied up in the center of the camp and shot with arrows by the soldiers. After that he was beaten with cudgels, and then he died. — Roman Martyrology for January 20
Most portraits of St. Sebastian are as at right. Wearing only a diminutive loincloth, his youthful and handsome body is pierced by numerous arrows. This follows the account in the Golden Legend, which says by the time the archers were done he looked like a porcupine.
The Legend says he was "tied" at the time. Caxton's translation says it was to a stake, but in the art it is almost always to a tree.
The loincloth does not appear to be based on any written source. Some portraits do present the saint fully dressed (example), and some also put the arrows in his hand rather than his body (example). Some go in the other direction and barely cover his private parts with just a swirl of cloth (example) or even less (example).
In two rare cases a Sebastian portrait features sheaves of wheat. One is the second picture at right, where four sheaves are arrayed left and right of the saint's feet. The other has a sheaf of wheat at the saint's forehead. Separated by nine centuries, the two artists may have arrived at the wheat symbol independently in response to John 12:24-25, "unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit."
The Golden Legend's story begins with Sebastian encouraging the brothers Mark and Marcellian in their resolve to accept martyrdom (image). His words were so inspiring that many around him were moved to accept the faith, including the young men's father. The father had been suffering from a painful disease, but it left him as soon as he was baptized. When the prefect heard of this he asked Sebastian to cure him too, but Sebastian said his idols would first have to be destroyed (image). Once that was done, the prefect was cured and was baptized along with his family. The pagans then beheaded his son Tiburtius and ran lances through the bodies of Mark and Marcellian. One portrait of St. Sebastian's execution refers to these deaths by the synecdoche of a headless trunk lying at the base of the tree.
It was on hearing of all this that Diocletian ordered the archers to execute Sebastian (image). He was left for dead, and a Christian widow named Irene sent for the body so that it could be properly buried. But she found that he was still alive, so she nursed him back to health in her home (image). Four days later Sebastian was back at Diocletian's palace, ready to "rebuke you for the evils you inflict on the servants of Christ." At that, Diocletian ordered his men to beat Sebastian to death with cudgels, staves, or stones, depending on the version.1 Then they were to throw his body into the Roman sewer (image). This was done, though St. Lucina later retrieved it and had it buried near the tombs of "the apostles" (Peter and Paul?).
I have seen only one portrait that uses a staff as an attribute, and none that use a cudgel or stone.
SEBASTIAN AND THE PLAGUE
Paul the Deacon's 8th-century History of the Lombards tells of a plague in the previous century that had beset all of Italy but especially Rome and Pavia (255). It was revealed to a certain man in Pavia that the plague would end there if an altar were built in honor of St. Sebastian. The citizens built the altar, and indeed the plague ended (image). Because of this story Sebastian was looked to as a go-to saint in time of plague. A fresco in Croatia shows him and St. Roch praying to Christ on either side of a huge pile of plague victims. Sebastian and Roch are also paired in many other paintings, especially in the century or so following the Black Death of 1346-53 (example).
Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-11-09, 2016-11-14, 2019-02-06.