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Flesh and Passion - The Fervor of Saint Sebastian thru the Artists' Eye
In Flesh and Passion - The Fervor of Saint Sebastian thru the Artists' Eye, a group of international artists contributes to the iconography of Saint Sebastian. Arguably, he is the figure who has appeared more often in Western art than any other with the exceptions of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. However, unlike the virginal Mary or the Christ, Sebastian keeps his humanity and thus is depicted as a corporeal man. Unlike Christ, the pinnacle of martyrdom, Sebastian was a physical warrior contained within flesh.
As the male nude has always been one of the most popular subjects for artists, both in paintings and in sculptures, Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of soldiers and atheletes, can be seen as, perhaps, the benchmark of the virile male form.
Since for centuries the church dictated all 'acceptable' behavior, it also forced artists to comply with ideas of guilt-inducing dogma. It is easy to see why the subjects that dominate art before the Renaissance were formulated from the lives of the early Gods, Mythological heros and Christian martyrs.
Whatever the appeal to artists, Saint Sebastian has almost always been shown as a comely young man; partially or often completely nude. It is almost as if the only outlet for the portrayal of a young man as a sexual object or focus of desire made it necessary to cloak this sensuality in a religious passion setting. One has only to search the internet for images of Saint Sebastian to be flooded with imagery of young flesh in peril. That he is under sentence of death only heightens the sadomasochistic positioning of this archetype.
Throughout history, the handsome youth who meets an early demise has held a certain fascination. Whether it is Achilles, Narcissus, Alexander the Great, Romeo or the later examples; Rudolph Valentino, Jim Morrison and James Dean, it appears that the surest way to immortality and iconography is to be beautiful and die young. For the distaff side one needs only to reference Cleopatra, Juliet, Joan of Arc, Jean Harlow, Princess Di and the most iconic figure of them all, Marilyn Monroe.
As the human condition requires nourishment, shelter and sex, it is truly difficult to separate the desire and passion prevalent in the depictions of Sebastian from the intellectual curiosity dealing with subjects that capture and inflame the imagination.
Neil Zukerman, NYC 4/08
Flesh and Passion: The
Fervor of Saint Sebastian Thru the Artists' Eye
Guest Curator, Jan K. Kapara