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Follow me, if you will, to Rome – to the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, not far from San Sebastiano Fuori le Mura, where the martyr's punctured remains have lain since the year 287 AD.Here, in a niche to the left, is the seventh-century mosaic of a middle-aged man, bearded and in Byzantine court dress.By contrast, there are more pictures of the arrow-filled Sebastian than there are of any other martyr I can think of, painted by everyone from Aleotti to Zick by way of Rubens, Botticelli, Titian and John Singer Sargent.The National Gallery alone has a dozen, including ones by Crivelli, Gerrit Honthorst and Luca Signorelli.If you need an excuse for a weekend in Paris, here it is.) It seems extraordinary that a painter should have gone back to the same subject so often, especially over so short a period.Latest scholarship dates all seven Sebastians to the 1610s, when Guido was in his thirties and newly home from Naples. Bologna had been annexed by the Papal States in the 16th century, and Sebastian was the third saint of Rome.
Thanks to the arrows, he's the one martyr in art everyone can spot. Who now recognises St Stephen's stones or St Lawrence's griddle? Yet, according to his hagiographer, Ambrose of Milan, Sebastian was a red-blooded captain in the Praetorian Guard, a centurion of middling years: he is the patron saint of soldiers and athletes, not hairdressers. Not only was St Sebastian middle-aged and butch, he wasn't killed with arrows. The perforated martyr was rescued from the stake and nursed back to health by St Irene of Rome – a woman, boys – before unwisely haranguing Diocletian for his paganism as he passed by on a litter.Even so, it is something of a leap from the canvases of Reni to the cover of re FRESH magazine.