Reflection on the Feast of St Sebastian

Prayer to St Sebastian from 1349

O St Sebastian, guard and defend me, morning and evening, every minute of every hour, while I am still of sound mind; and, Martyr, diminish the strength of that vile illness called an epidemic which is threatening me. Protect and keep me and all my friends from this plague. We put our trust in God and St Mary, and in you, O Holy Martyr. You, citizen of Milan, could, through God’s power, halt this pestilence if you chose. O Martyr Sebastian! Be with us always, and by your merits keep us safe and sound and protected from plague. Commend us to the Trinity and to the Virgin Mary, so that when we die we may have our reward: to behold God in the company of martyrs.

17th Century mural of St Sebastian from an Ethiopian Church

It’s been a strange year for me and Saint Sebastian.

The first significant encounter I had with Saint Sebastian (the saint shot through with arrows) was within the pages of Yukio Mishima’s coming-of-age story Confessions of a Mask. I had picked it up as a young teenager knowing it was a notorious work. In it the main character Kochan’s nascent queer sexuality is sparked pursuing Renaissance art books in his father’s study. What becomes the focus of his desire is in the exotic representations of Saint Sebastian who’s youthful body is naked, twisted and injured.

It is true, representations of the saint have an intimacy, a tenderness that is seductive and suggestive. It’s as though the homoerotic gaze is essential to the iconography. Mishima writes luridly and extensively about the eroticism of this image. And like the way that Sebastian’s martyrdom is a mirror for Christ’s, Kochan’s gaze was a mirror for my own.

Jusepe de Ribera, Saint Sebastian, 17th Century

And so Sebastian traveled with me as part of a secret code of gay male sexuality—a hidden note passed by dead painters. I looked for Mishima’s book “Ba Ra Kei” where photographs of author mimic the saint. I peered at tiny scans on websites. Later in high school, I started a wry electropop band with my friends called “Saint Sebastian”. The name felt to me like a nod to my Catholic school upbringing, my delight in hagiographies and as something coded.

But the what escaped me about the saint was Sebastian’s connection to disease. I think in times between plagues we forget what plague-time is like, even generation to generation. There are leftovers, yes, there’s Diamanda Galas performing Plague Mass, there’s art—there’s so much art from the AIDS Crisis—and then so much forgetting and so much absence, so much space for us to forget.

Still from Sebastiane, 1976

So idly I wonder if in the absence of plague, does the erotic aspect of this saint dominate? I remember seeing Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (made in 1976) once when I was in college. I can recall how beautiful it was. It was Jarman’s first film, and I feel tempted knowing that Sebastian is a plague saint to connect it to the AIDS crisis even if this feels a bit perverse. In 1994 Jarman’s last movie was Blue documented the director’s experience of dying from AIDS. The entire film the color blue, which was at the time the only color he could see. Jarman was always something of a prophet, so I want to intertwine the two, connect Sebastian’s erotic suffering to the other, and yet…

Pierre et Gilles, Saint Sebastian, 1987 (Note: I rather like Pierre et Gilles)

But in the ellipsis between AZT and the 2020 PANDEMIC (writ large across the world) Sebastian settles back to being the patron saint of athletes as evidenced by medallions I found being sold online by catholicompany. He settles back to being the unofficial patron saint of the gay community: in poorly executed fashion editorials for gay magazines. My life mostly fits into this ellipsis, and my relationship to the saint is peripheral. But he pops up: I spend a lot of time thinking about a sculpture of him I see in Little Italy and my former roommate moves near a cathedral with his relic in Majorca and uses it as a reason to come visit (I don’t visit).


It’s April 2020 and I’m in New York City finding myself praying the rosary, drawing pictures of Saint Sebastian and setting up little altars to him an other plague saints. His role as intercessor against the plague suddenly has become dominant. The iconography is the same, of course, but my eye is drawn to his face which is turned up to heaven.

Signorelli, Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (detail), 1498

And here is the strangeness of image, the slipperiness of an icon. Rather than a shift in focus there is a shift in identification. Instead of gazing at him now I identify with the saint as he is being tortured, stripped of agency, thinking “will this next arrow be the one?” The saint’s character has shifted as well: instead of a mere object of adoration he is a soldier who endures torment and bestows perseverance through plague-time.

And what does an epidemic do other than bind and torture? If it’s not simply an effect of the disease it’s an effect of the state methods to curb the outbreak. But in any case, it’s becomes a situation so complex with so many actors (invisible and visible) it is solidly beyond individual’s grasp. It’s a humbling experience, one that is forgotten during un-plague-time’s amnesia. Saint Sebastian can cut through these layers of history connecting to deeper older memories. The voices praying for intercession become synchronized.

It seems to me that the weirdness of saints can be demonstrated in Sebastian. It’s in his complex cultural ambience, his ability to go from thin costume to intercessor. Saints grow and change in popularity picking up patronages, spheres and communities. They wane in popularity and become forgotten. But when remembered they form a direct channel to a complex past and a complex history, one that is more focused on human fears and concerns, love and care, than holy transcendence.

Josse Lieferinxe, Saint Sebastian Cured by Irene, 1497

A Plague Amulet & The Zacharias Blessing

In April of 2020 I became interested in a type of woodblock printed anti-plague amulet from the Renaissance called a pestblätter or “plague paper”. I made my own version which I shared with my friends. The amulet is made up of images of saints (St. Roch and St. Sebastian) and a double armed cross (the miraculuous Caravaca Cross) on which is superimposed Zachariah’s Blessing which is a string of characters: ☩ Z ☩ D I A ☩ B I Z ☩ S A B ☩ Z ☩ H G F ☩ B F R S).

You, dear reader, are welcome to use my version for any purpose. I might suggest the traditional usage which is posting it in your home by your door, or possibly printing out small and folding it up so it can be carried to protect against disease.

Plague Amulet
My version of the pestblätter
pdf download

There’s a post in the Wellcome Collection blog that goes into detail about the history and use of these amulets (“Deciphering a central European plague amulet“) and these designs. Thanks to the printing press and cheap paper after the 16th century woodblock prints allowed for many common people to own religious images. Oftentimes these squeezed in as many images of the saints and holy images as possible into the image.

A plague cross surrounded by St. Sebastian, St. Roch, and St
Another plague amulet, unknown year.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This image from the Wellcome Collection demonstrates the crowded iconography of this genre of printed amulet: the Trinity at the top and the Madonna and Child. On the left of the central “plague cross” is St Sebastian and on the right St Roch and behind the is St John of Nepomuk. Of the trio of saints at the bottom, St. Sebastian and St. Roch are usually paired as intercessors against the plague. Sebastian’s relationship to plague, I’ve previously discussed, was more about his intercession after his martyrdom, and his iconography, whereas St. Roch worked to treated plague victims and recovered miraculously from the plague—he is depicted pointing to a diseased wound on his leg. St John of Nepomuk’s relationship’s to plague, on the other hand, seems less direct, other than the fact that he had a popular cult in the Renaissance, and began to be invoked against and commemorated in plague memorials.

This brings us to the Zacharias Blessing (☩ Z ☩ D I A ☩ B I Z ☩ S A B ☩ Z ☩ H G F ☩ B F R S). From what I can find it was said to be a blessing given by St Zacharias of Jerusalem or sometimes pope Zacharias and approved for use by the council of Trent. It was copied onto many different amulets and the letters are frequently found corrupted. How the formula was created is similar to other Christian abbreviations (IHS, INRI) but each letter stands for a different line of a prayer in latin, a kind of holy acrostic. The crosses stand for the phrase “Crux Christi”.

Medieval ring inscription from Portugal
(The Archaeology of Medieval Europe, Vol. 2: Twelfth to Sixteenth Centuries)

The text of the full blessing is written in the style of the Psalms, taking some quotations from, perhaps in particular the Songs of Ascents. The view of disease is largely based on the ancient miasmatic theory of disease which, although it is discredited, surely has some resonance with aerosol transmission of disease. You can read the full text below. I’ve also made a rough translation of Zacharias Blessing. I was mostly using a German translation as reference, but please enjoy!

Zacharias Blessing

☩ Z ☩ D I A ☩ B I Z ☩ S A B ☩ Z ☩ H G F ☩ B F R S

Crux Christi salva me!Christ’s Cross, save me!
Z. Zelus domus Dei libera me!The zeal of Your house frees me!
Crux Christi vincit et regnat; per lignum crucis libera me Domine ab hac peste!Christ’s Cross overcomes; the cross rules; by the sign of the cross free me, O Lord, from this plague!
D. Deus, Deus meus expelle pestem de loco isto et libera me!God, my God, drive the plague out of this place and free me!
I. In manus tuas. Domine, commendo animam meam et corpus meum!In your hands. Lord, I commend my soul and my body!
A. Ante coelum et terram Deus erat et Deus potens est liberare me ab hac peste!Before the heaven and the earth there was God, and God is powerful to liberate me from this plague!
Crux Christi potens est ad expellendam pestem a loco isto et corpore meo.Christ’s Cross has the power to expel the plague from this place and from my body.
B. Bonum est praestolari auxilium Dei cum silentio ut expellat pestem a me.It is good to wait quietly for God’s help, that he may drive this plague away from me.
I. Inclinabo cor meum ad faciendas justificationes tuas et non confundar, quoniam invocavi te.I will incline my heart to performing your laws and I will not be confounded for I have called upon you.
Z. Zelavi super iniquos pacem peccatorum videns et speravi in te.I was zealous over those with inequities, seeing the peacefulness of sinners.
Crux Christi fugeat Daemones, aerem corruptum et pestem expellat.Christ’s Cross makes demons and polluted air flee, driving away the plague.
S. Salus tua ego sunt, dicit Dominus: clama ad me, et ego exaudiam te et liberabo te ab hac peste.I am your salvation, the Lord says: “Call to me and I will answer you, and free you from plague”.
A. Abyssus abyssum invocat et voce tua expulisti Daemones: libera me ab hac peste.Deep calls unto deep and the voice expels demons: liberate me from this plague.
B. Beatus vir, qui sperat in Domino et non respexit in vanitates et insanias falsas!Blessed is the man that puts his trust in the Lord, and does not seek vanities, lies and foolishness!
Crux Christi, quae ante fuit in opprobrium et contumeliam et nunc in gloriam et nobilitatem, sit mihi in Salutem et expellat a loco isto diabolum et aerem corruptum et pestem a corpore.The Cross of Christ, which was disgrace and shame, but is now glory and nobility be my Salvation, expel the devil and polluted air from this place and the plague from my body.
Z. Zelus honoris Dei convertat me antequam moriar et in nomine tuo salva me ab hac peste.May zeal for honor of God convert me before I die, and in your name save me from this plague.
Crucis Signum libert populum Dei et a peste cos, qui confidunt in eo.The Sign of the Cross saves the people of God, and all who trust in Him are freed from the plague.
H. Haeccine reddis Domino popule stulte? redde vota tua offerens sacrificium laudis et fide illi, qui potens est istum locum et me ab hac peste liberare, quoniam qui confidunt in eo, non confundentur.Will the foolish return to the Lord? Fulfill your vows by offering praise and faith in Him, because He is powerful to free this us and this place from the plague; for those who take refuge in him shall not be disappointed.
G. Gutturi meo et faucibus meis adhaeret lingua mea, si non benedixero tibi, libera sperantes in te, in te confido, libera me Deus ab hac peste et locum istum, in quo nomen tuum invocatur.May my tongue become stuck to my jaw if I don’t praise you. Deliver those who hope for you. I put my trust in you. Get rid of this plague from this place, f or I have invoked your name.
F. Factae sunt tenebrae super universam terram in morte. Domine Deus mens, fiat lubrica et tenebrosa diaboli potestas. Et quia ad hoc venisti, fili Dei vivi, ut dissolvas opera diaboli, expelle potentia tua a loco isto et a me servo tuo pestem istam. Discedat aer corruptus a me in tenebras exteriores.At your death, O Lord, total darkness covered the earth. The slippery and dark power of the Devil came, until the return of the Son of the living God, who destroyed the works of the Devil. With your power and drive away the plague from me and this place; may the corrupted air depart to the outer darkness.
Crux Christi, defende nos et expelle a loco isto pestem, et servum tuum libera, quia benignus es et misericors et multae misericordiae et verax.Christ’s Cross, defend us and drive the plague out of this place and free your servant, because you are kind and merciful, you are of great mercy and truthfulness.
B. Beatus qui non respexit in vanitates et insanias falsas; in die mala liberabit cum Deus. Domine, in te speravi, libera me ab hac peste.Blessed is he who does not regard vanities, and false extravagances; in this day of wickedness. Lord, I have trusted in you: free me from this plague.
F. Factus est Deus in refugium mihi, quia in te speravi, libera me ab hac peste.The Lord has become my refuge; because I trust in you, free me from this plague.
R. Respice in me Domine, Deus mens Adonai, de Sede sancta Majestatis tuae, et miserere mei et propter misericordiam, tuam ab hac peste libera me.Look thou upon me, O Lord my God, Adonai, from the holy seat of Majesty, and have mercy on me, and for the sake of your mercy, in Thy greatness deliver me from this pestilence.
S. Salus mea Tu es; sana me d sanabor, salvum me fac et salvus ero.You are my salvation. Heal me and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved.


St Sebastian: Arrows & The Virgin

St Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken (detail)

Arrows of disease

The arrows that pierce St Sebastian’s body are arrows of disease. The idea of plague as arrows seems to go very far back into the ancient world. Contemplating his image it is hard for me to separate these arrows from the arrows of Apollo, god of healing but also of disease. Apollo raised his bow several times in the Iliad to rain plague on the Greeks. Apollo controls both the proliferation of disease and it’s cure. Sebastian’s body, on the other hand, is riddled with arrows, his organs and limbs pierced, he suffers in agony. But St Sebastian does not die – his murderers don’t succeed with killing him this way. After being nursed back to health he succumbs to beatings. Sebastian is a man of sorrows, suffering the effects of plague, but not its author. He stands in the position between us and God, raised and caring, human. Sebastian intercedes again and again to save the living from the devastation of disease.

Plague arrows rain down

Madonna Della Misericordia

The sufferings of the martyrs are always linked to the sufferings of the Mother of the life of the whole world, the Virgin. She harbors the spark of the beginning transformed by witnessing the horror of her son’s torture and death. She stands by the entrance and the exit. Her singular human experience is extrapolated, multiplied to care for the whole human race.

The Madonna Della Misercordia is a representation of the Virgin that became popular during the plagues. In the image the Madonna is spreading out her cloak to shield us from disease and death. Humanity is kept safe from the plague arrows, scourge sent from heaven, and demons. Under the holy mother’s shield we are kept from the awesome destructive powers of the Universe.

Madonna Della Misercordia

In the above pestbilder, or painting which is a prayer against plague, St Sebastian stands on a plinth, his cloak shielding the people crowded at his feet from the arrows hurled down from heaven much like the Madonna Della Misercordia. The arrows break around him.

It might be useful to consider the position that St Sebastian occupies versus the place where disease comes from this image. Disease here is divine. What a difficult and complex image.

Stabat Mater

Stabat Mater is a hymn that considers the sorrows of the Virgin. It was sung in processions in times of the plague to avert it’s power. It is a sad song of mourning and suffering.

Here is one of the earlier settings on the hymn:

and Pergolesi’s:

Prayer to St. Sebastian Against Illness

O Glorious St Sebastian, faithful follower of Jesus Christ, to you do we raise our hearts and hands to implore your powerful intercession in obtaining from the God the Father all the helps and graces necessary for our spiritual and temporal welfare, particularly the grace of living a holy life, courage to face all perils of my believe and even to sacrifice my life as the cost of my faith and this special favor we now implore you turn back the plague and pandemic that threatens our loved ones and communities. O, special guardian from the diseases and accidents, we feel animated with confidence that your intercession on my behalf will be graciously heard before throne of God.