The most beautiful word in the English language is “Sebastian”. Sebastian Flyte, Sebastian Dangerfield, Sebastian Venable; the title is divine – all gleaming with crimson.
A name should unbalance one. Indeed, some names haunt us and suggest ways of being and even aspects of behaviour. When I was crucified and was asked repeatedly why I had done it I replied: “Because I am called Sebastian, not Donald.” In the hooligan world of art this was understood. Sebastian, as an icon is attractive – even if only to faggots. Mr Wilde took Sebastian as his Christian name for his alias when on the run in France. He also wrote “the grave of Keats” for me:
“The youngest of the martyrs here is lain, Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.”
As you all know St Sebastian modelled himself on me. Plagiarism is when someone steals your original idea and does it two thousand years before you were born.
You see, Sebastian was the ultimate dandy. One whose life affects others through his very existence, rather than through any work or efforts at persuasion. He created a stir through force of personality and example alone. One does not become a guru by accident. If Gandhi proved that you can rule the world by being polite then Sebastian proved, once and for all the power of personal magnetism and what it can accomplish. What’s more, in his execution he created an image to be gazed at and adored. He is worshipped on church walls. Sebastian, the martyr who died for our sins and arrowed exhibitionist in a skimpy loin-cloth. And style is a way of buying people rather than things. Its values are spiritual values. All great stylists borrow a lot from the wardrobe of Sebastian – everything in fact except those dreadful clothes.
Suicide, thinly disguised as martyrdom, was the rock on which Sebastian’s personality was built. You see, the early Christians had a lust for suicide and martyrdom. The Romans may have fed Christians to the lions for sport, but they were not prepared for the fact that the Christians welcomed the animals as instruments of glory and salvation. The persecution of the early Christians was less religious and political than a perversion of their own seeking.
Sebastian’s life like Jesus’ was an awesome study in self-destruction. Of course, it has been valuable for us to deceive ourselves about the depth of their destructiveness. Clearly, as great religious stylists, they knew that, without their deaths, they would be no one. Where would Christianity be if Jesus had got eight to 15 years with time off for good behaviour? Where would Sebastian be if he had got off? Hanged in all innocence or a public and merited disgrace? No stylist could long hesitate.
Yes, Saints are ok in heaven, but they’re hell on earth. No wonder the faggots love him. – Sebastian is the guy with the longest hard luck story of them all.
Apart from Wilde, Mishima, Auden, Jarman, Tennessee Williams, all eulogised him. And now the Dulwich Picture Gallery has gathered together by the eternally penetrated saint by baroque artist Guido Reni.
I was determined not to be upstaged by these pictures. I failed. Sebastian was wearing more blusher than I was.
The glory of art is that the horrible put in memorable form becomes beauty. And yet there is no horror, fear or sheer physical frenzy of one mortally pierced with arrows. The figures seem transfixed.
Why? Are they designed to show us the transcendent marvel of martyrdom? That faith serves as an inner armoury or anaesthetic, or that God instils his witnesses with special strength and resistance?
Representations of Sebastian are about pain and beautified cruelty. They are about enlisting pain into the service of pleasure and forcing pleasure back into the service of pain.
The colour and quality of the flesh is extraordinary. They look like the marble one lays on graves. Reni paints the silences. He paints the night. He tries to make darkness visible. And of course, everything is more poignant in darkness.
All representatives of Sebastian are of him as target practise. Stripped to loin-cloth or diaphanous briefs, a standard Sebastian flaunts the typical pose of a classical Greek athlete – one leg relaxed, and the hip consequently pronounced.
And miraculously Sebastian survives, being nursed back to health and instead of legging it confronts the Emperor. He is sentenced to death again. He is then flogged, bludgeoned and pulverised to death, and flung into the great sewer of Rome.
It’s a shame so few artists have chosen to depict Sebastian’s actual demise..
Reni’s paintings are about glamour, narcissism and vitality. But the real tale of Sebastian ends in humility, vulnerability and degradation. Call me a pervert but this makes me love Sebastian even more.
Like Sebastian when I was crucified I didn’t die on the cross which was disappointing. Under certain conditions a great work of art is a kind of suicide which is what I wanted mine to be. I have always wanted to have a significant death. I yearn to go out in a blaze of glory. But I can’t. I would even settle for a blaze of ignominy and yet it seems even a cheap death is hard to come by.
Oh well. To be a dandy is to live as a martyr. And if a martyr is someone who becomes famous without ability, then I’m not doing badly – at least not on the ability front. I am now a reconciled Sebastian. I can allow the arrows to rest gently in my wounds.