When the Saints Go Arting In: Sebastian

Jo Thornely
4 min readFeb 4, 2022


Today I learned about Saint Sebastian, an extremely fit saint who was punished for being a Christian by being tied to a post wearing only his undies in the middle of archery practice. The third coolest thing about THAT is that he survived being shot at over and over again with arrows, like when the little ball-collecting buggy comes out at the golf driving range if you’re middle class and everyone tries to shoot at it. The second coolest thing is that the art depicting Sebastian as a human pin cushion is incredible, and the coolest thing is obviously underpants.

Andrea Mantegna just could not stop himself painting Saint Sebastian and did so three times, consistently with abs and nips that just won’t quit. Mantegna seemed to learn more about anatomy and rope-tying each time he painted him, too which is a relief.

In this first one, he played fast and loose with the “surviving” part of Sebastian’s story by giving him some definitely killy-type head and chest arrows. There’s also nothing to suggest that Sebastian couldn’t just step out of the loosey noosey around his ankles and walk away, except perhaps that he was embarrassed to stroll back into town with such inexplicably wet boxer shorts.

By his second stab at it (sorry Sebastian), Mantegna has added some extra sit-ups and a clothes dryer into Sebastian’s routine and fastened him more securely to the column. He’s even added in a couple of archers, who look like they’re complaining that after the first eight or nine arrows, shooting religious infidels just isn’t fun any more.

By his third instalment, Mantegna has stopped worrying about realism and just let Sebastian enjoy the experience — wind in his hair, the freedom to walk around, even a long overdue little scrotal suggestion. If it weren’t for the obvious and urgent need for Band-Aids, he’d look almost jolly.

Come to think of it, it’s legitimately difficult to find depictions of Saint Sebastian that don’t suggest most artists were at least a little bit horny for him. El Greco affords him the flimsiest wisp of modesty with a strip of cloth that would dissolve in a light mist, and barely tethers his buff, hairless frame to a tree with a feeble half-hitch.

Rubens shows Sebastian being gently untied and de-arrowed by angels in a tender moment seconds away from exposing — dare I say it — Li’l Sebastian. It’s extremely intimate and not unsexy, even with the suit of armour just plonked in there purely for Rubens to show us he’s ace at painting armour.

Luca Signorelli is less into Sebastian himself than he is into painting fancy tights and approaching-middle-age butt cheeks, and his work is one of many examples of how far you can let ‘target practice’ stray across the line into ‘flat out goddamn sadism’ based on the distance between the archers and the victim. God is probably scolding them, and not admiring their pants. Probably.

I mean. WHAT is going on with this altarpiece. Saint Sebastian, taking a brief holiday from being Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I, peels down his onesie to make room for arrows, stopping just above a fairly decent reason to be proud. Again with the short-range archer-bullying and again the fancy tights, but with a fresh realisation that through this painting I have learned that halos are not see-through. Interesting.

As a refreshing change, sometimes Sebastian is just painted as a drunk 20-year-old who you’d definitely ask for ID at a music festival, like in this piece by Francisco de Zerbaran. It’s a welcome relief from the relentless hotness to just stare at a painting and wonder why the nipples are so far from the belly button. Meditative.

Anyway that’s Saint Sebastian and his not-unappealing semi-naked martyrdom. He was shot through the heart, and a Roman emperor was to blame. He gives underpants a bad name (bad name).