Early Christian martyr. Sebastian is commemorated in the Depositio Martyrum (c. 350) as buried in the cemetery in catacumbas, and is mentioned in other martyrologies, for his cult spread rapidly. St. Ambrose says that he was a native of Milan and suffered during the persecution of Diocletian between 297 and 305. This seems to be confirmed by the place of his tomb in catacumbas, which cannot be older than the second half of the third century.
The Passio S. Sebastiani, a romance compiled c. 450, was probably the work of a monk of the monastery that Pope sixtus iii erected in catacumbas to expand the cult. According to it, Sebastian was an army officer condemned for the faith to be pierced with arrows by his fellow soldiers; he was buried by the matron Lucina in catacumbas in initio cryptae iuxta vestigia Apostolorum. The Romans credited him with the cessation of the plague in 680; they had invoked him mainly because the arrows were likened to nails, which were always looked upon in Rome as a sacred-magical means "to nail down ill luck."
Under the Renaissance he was represented as an old soldier; then, as a young man with strong delicate limbs or as a heroic soldier before the archers. In art he is most important, and there is a vast iconography. In the earliest representations he is depicted as a bearded Roman warrior, later as a cleanshaven younger man. The scene of his first "martyrdom" with arrows is the most popular episode of his life seen in painting and sculpture. According to legend he recovered and was later beaten to death. This event and the scene with St. Irene nursing his wounds are rare. He is frequently depicted in altar paintings merely standing and holding an arrow, or as punctured with arrows.
Feast: Jan. 20.
Bibliography: Acta Sanctorum Jan. 2:621–660. g. mancini and b. pesci, San Sebastiano fuori le mura (Rome 1959). b. pesci, "Il culto di S. Sebastiano a Roma," Miscellanea historica Oliger (Rome 1945) 177–200. v. kraehling, Saint Sébastian dans l'Art (Paris 1938).