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 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:
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.