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St. Sebastian


St. Sebastian


Saint Sebastian's upward gaze informs the viewer of his pain. A human body in pain would be closed, looking into itself, and collapsed, but Saint Sebastian is inviting us to share his pain. All of the positions of a closed body indicate pain, and so Saint Sebastian's openness and wide gaze contribute to saints' experience of pleasure through pain. Other saints have more explicit declarations of their pleasure in The Golden Legend, such as Saint Agatha ("to prison she went with great joy, even triumphantly, as if she had been invited to a banquet") or Saint Tiburtius ("I feel as if, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I were walking over a bed of roses") (de Voragine, 1998). 

Saint Sebastian says in an appeal to Christians, "Let us kindle in ourselves now a passionate desire for martyrdom!" (de Voragine, 1998). Saint Sebastian's realism and lifelike qualities also contribute to the human projection of striving towards martyrdom, seen in the other two pieces as well. Paintings of human subjects during the Renaissance would never be depicted as saints were. Saints, sometimes barely clothed, showing blood, or agony, or destitution, were a way for laypeople to interact with their sins, and reform their behaviors. However, they would never depict themselves that way. Patrons frequently fronted their "patriotism, piety, or prestige"; to show pain would be read as political incompetence. Pain was instead channeled through the body of Christ, particularly on wooden crucifixion, as that material was seen as analogous to flesh, as well as the indirect pain of Mary's grief.

Despite the clear wounds covering his body, St. Sebastian's face shows no sign of physical pain. Studies have shown that there are four main facial cues of pain that are present across many different types of painful sensations including cold, pressure, ischemia, and electric shock (Prkachin, 2009). Someone experiencing pain would have a furrowed brow, orbit tightening, upper lip raising/nose wrinkling, and eye closure. In this depiction, St. Sebastian seems to be demonstrating the opposite of these facial features. His eyebrows are relaxed, possibly raised a bit, his eyes are wide, and lips slightly parted. Overall, his face has a sense of serenity rather than distress. 

Here, St. Sebastian is acting as a martyr, suffering in the name of God. It is plausible that before the arrows pierced his body, St. Sebastian understood his imminent suffering to have a positive outcome. Two hormones, endogenous opioids and cannabinoids, are involved in stress responses and placebo analgesia. When the meaning of pain is thought to have a positive outcome, these two hormones are co-activated and increase pain tolerance (Bendetti et al., 2013). While St. Sebastian could be experiencing extreme pain, due to the hormonal pathways in his brain, he could be perceiving the sensation much differently.

St. Sebastian