[From The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved October 25, 2008 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13668a.htm]
Foman martyr; little more than the fact of his martyrdom can be proved about St. Sebastian. In the "Depositio martyrum" of the chronologer of 354 it is mentioned that Sebastian was buried on the Via Appia. St. Ambrose ("In Psalmum cxviii"; "Sermo", XX, no. sliv in PL, XV, 1497) states that Sebastian came from Milan and even in the time of St. Ambrose was venerated there. The Acts, probably written at the beginning of the fifth century and formerly ascribed erroneously to Ambrose, relate that he was an officer in the imperial bodyguard and had secretly done many acts of love and charity for his brethren in the Faith. When he was finally discovered to be a Christian, in 286, he was handed over to the Mauretanian archers, who pierced him with arrows; he was healed, however, by the widowed St. Irene. He was finally killed by the blows of a club. These stories are unhistorical and not worthy of belief. The earliest mosaic picture of St. Sebastian, which probably belongs to the year 682, shows a grown, bearded man in court dress but contains no trace of an arrow. It was the art of the Renaissance that first portrayed him as a youth pierced by arrows. In 367 a basilica which was one of the seven chief churches of Rome was built over his grave. The present church was completed in 1611 by Scipio Cardinal Borghese. His relics in part were taken in the year 826 to St. Medard at Soissons.
Sebastian is considered a protector against the plague. Celebrated answers to prayer for his protection against the plague are related of Rome in 680, Milan in 1575, and Lisbon in 1599. His feast day is 20 January.
From Catholic Online http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=103]:
According to his legend, Sebastian was born at Narbonne, Gaul. He became a soldier in the Roman army at Rome in about 283, and encouraged Marcellian and Marcus, under sentence of death, to remain firm in their faith. Sebastian made numerous converts: among them were the master of the rolls, Nicostratus, who was in charge of prisoners and his wife, Zoe, a deaf mute whom he cured; the jailer Claudius; Chromatius, Prefect of Rome, whom he cured of gout; and Chromatius' son, Tiburtius. Chromatius set the prisoners free, freed his slaves, and resigned as prefect.
Sebastian was named captain in the praetorian guards by Emperor Diocletian, as did Emperor Maximian when Diocletian went to the East. Neither knew that Sebastian was a Christian. When it was discovered during Maximian's persecution of the Christians that Sebastian was indeed a Christian, he was ordered executed. He was shot with arrows and left for dead, but when the widow of St. Castulus went to recover his body, she found he was still alive and nursed him back to health. Soon after, Sebastian intercepted the Emperor, denounced him for his cruelty to Christians, and was beaten to death on the Emperor's orders.
He is the patron saint of athletes because of his physical endurance and his energetic way of spreading and defending the Faith. Sebastian is also patron to all soldiers. He entered the Roman army under Emperor Carinus in 283 in order to defend the confessors and martyrs of his day without drawing attention to himself. His efforts kept the Faith of Marcus and Marcellian firm during their persecutions, right up to the time of their martyrdom. He was declared patron of plague sufferers of his reported cures of those afflicted with many diseases.
The Cult of St. Sebastian in Istria
Sebastian is only one of the many saints honored in the Catholic world and invoked against different illnesses and misfortunes. The cult of this martyr who lived in the 3rd century A.D. appeared in Istria probably in the early Middle Ages and became a part of the popular “arsenal” against plague. In time, it was replaced by the cult of another late medieval saint, Rochus. Therefore, probably today’s traces of the cult of St. Sebastian in Istria (three churches, frescos, paintings and statues) represent only meager remains of a once rich expansion....
...The cult of St. Sebastian becomes alive today only on rare, exceptional occasions. Sebastian was an ambitious nobleman originally from Narbonne, who, as a favorite of Diocletian, obtained the rank of a captain in the Praetorian Guard. Christianity had penetrated all the pores of the ancient world long before the 3rd century, when the Roman frontiers were breaking down under the attacks of barbarians. Among the Christ’s followers, successful in spreading the words of the son of God only in the greatest conspiracy, was a young Sebastian. He revealed his views when he intervened during the torture of two soldiers-Christians, encouraging them in their faith, and even succeeding in converting their relatives, guards, and the judge to his religion. Diocletian sentenced Sebastian to death by shooting arrows at him, but God decided to spare the young Sebastian’s life: Irene, a widow of a Christian martyr, nursed him until his recovery (1). However, Sebastian did not hide from the pursuers: he was again caught preaching in public, beaten to death, and thrown into a sewer (2). Since that time, he lived in prayers of the meek populace for the protection against plague, in the sculptures, frescos and paintings by Guido Reni, Mantegna, Perugino, Giorgione, and many others.
The word about Sebastian, his martyrdom, and his faith spread throughout the Christian world: the spiritual strength attributed to him was judged by the people as a good protection against many diseases – mainly plague but also epilepsy and various wounds (3). As with other saints, his thaumaturgic “specialization” was determined according to secondary associations: as Sebastian was always pictured shot with arrows on a pillar, the arrows reminded of the plague that Apollo sent as arrows to the Greeks under Troy, according to the Homeric medical symbolism. The survival of Sebastian and the healing of his wounds was explained as the power over plague. People thus appealed to Sebastian during all epidemics, which were rarely differentiated by the common people.
To comprehend the phenomenon of the invocation of saints, it is necessary to penetrate the medieval mind of an ordinary man. Exposed to wars, blood, hunger, and illnesses, the peasants bent under the load of life, and it is not surprising that they replaced the vacuum of answers with the imaginative instinct of their lively spirit. Thus, they started spinning a fine web of stories about plague (4,5) that was always depicted as a woman who entered a village at night and cut off the heads of the sleeping peasants, as a reaper would cut grass, about good spirits who, in a form of white dogs, fought the demons at the cross-roads at night, and about saints who descended from the frescos and paintings with swords to drive away the insatiable plague. If they failed in protecting the peasants, the plague would breathe illness into them through their mouth, as in reanimation, and they would start shaking and burning, the pulse would start beating like a wild hammer, they would start vomiting and their eyes and face would burn, the throat would become covered with dirt, and the thigh, armpit and neck glands would swell like a sack of painful nuts which fester and bleed with smell. They would finally die in pain and cries.
All those phantasmagorical spiritual games with verses were, however, not so infantile and senseless, representing the embryos of knowledge about the germ-bearers, vectors, ways of spreading, resistance, and exposition – a real miniature epidemiological script for students, primarily reflecting intelligent and logical line of thinking of the common people: simplification. Plague, often represented in a popular tradition as a woman, needed to be confronted with an adequate opposing force. A doctor was expensive, covered himself with a sheet, wore a funny beak hat, and his secret theriacas and preaching were not very helpful. Someone with God’s credentials and powers was needed, someone who could have been sculpted, painted, taken to the place where he would serve most. The best confirmation of the God’s fondness were miracles due to which saints became the affirmed elements of the catholic and eastern-orthodox theological pyramid, accepted by people as a replacement or revitalization of the old pagan polytheism, an ideal and therapy for each particular danger. The saints’ jurisdictions were defined according to different criteria, most often with respect to iconographic or linguistic (etymological) associations. Benedict is connected to sore throats according to German blasen=blow, breathe; Lucia to the sight according to Latin lux, lucis=light; Augustine is associated with the eyes on the basis of German Auge=eye; and Anthony the Hermit is represented with the pig next to his leg since the medieval Anthony’s followers enjoyed the privilege of releasing pigs in the city streets. To assure a good night sleep people thus built churches dedicated to the saints-protectors, as sentinels at a village entrance.
The cult of St. Sebastian arrived to Istria, a small land ruled by too many governors, a land of good wine, malaria, and a religious, meek population which needed a good saint-protector more than any other. In Istria, situated at the cross-roads of Venetian, south European, and Balkan commercial and military paths, plagues appeared every year, one succeeding the other so that villages never managed to recover.
Not always, of course, was the correct diagnosis made: a broad range of ineffective diseases often confused the afflicted population and physicians as well. This was, however, a well-known problem even with some far better documented epidemics, like the Thucydides’ one (6).
The impacts of plague on Istria were very often catastrophic (7). Although the epidemics had appeared in the earlier periods, a more frequent series started in the 13th century, in 1222, 1238, 1245, and 1248, coinciding with draughts and causing heavy decreases in the population. Especially heavy epidemic, spreading even to the Brijuni isles, occurred in the 14th century, desolating five Istrian Benedictine monasteries. Epidemics followed in 1312, 1330, and 1338. The coincidence of tragedies led to local insurrections of the population, which was exploited by the Venetian Republic for its purposes (e.g., the case in Koper in 1338) (8). In 1343, Rovinj was hit by the pestilence imported from Venice (8).
At the beginning of its conquering campaign in Europe, the “black death” took the first lives as early as in 1347. The reactions of the population were panicky: the citizens of Koper, under the leadership of count Albert III, arrested the local mayor, took down the flag of the Venetian Republic, and raised the flag of the commune. In the neighboring Muggia, half of the population died of plague at the same time. In 1348, Piran had to purchase new land for the cemetery because of a large number of corpses.
The Dolfina’s chronicle from 1360 protests again against the “importing” of plague from Venice and Friuli (9). Since the city officials were required to remain in their cities even at the times of epidemics, according to the active regulations, the requests of the mayors of Piran and Groznjan directed to the Venetian Senate, in which they asked for a permission to be treated in Venice, are especially interesting. In the following year the epidemic spread to Poreč, Pula, and Motovun. Fearing revolt and learning from the past experience, the Venetian Senate sent ten soldiers to Istria to prevent unrests.
After ten years of peace, Istria was again hit by a new epidemic in 1371. The epidemic drastically reduced the work force, so that navigator Carlo Zeno, lacking sailors for his six ships, had to anchor in the immediate vicinity of Poreč. A new epidemic, causing a great number of casualties, appeared again in Koper in 1376. The Church relieved the population of the payment of dues which were uncollectable because of the poverty. The story about the Istrian plague continued in the 15th century with the new epidemic which decimated the population from Savudrija to Pula in 1427. The infection in this case possibly spread in the reverse direction, from Istria to the north-west, since the Great Council of Trieste forbade the citizens to host persons from the endangered areas under a threat of a 50-lira fine. In spite of that, plague appeared in Trieste in 1429 (7). The subsequent epidemics of 1449 and 1456 struck the whole of the Istrian peninsula, especially Poreč and Motovun. The authorities established strict precautionary measures: travels were forbidden, peasants were banned to enter the cities, belongings of the dead were burned (10). Priests were even forced to cultivate the land in order to survive. In Trieste, the 1467 epidemic took 105 lives in the city hospital alone. The losses in Poreč and Rovinj amounted up to one fifth of the total population.
Plague spread again from Venice in 1475, only this time with far worse effects. Fearing contagion, commercial and maritime ties died out, which hit Piran most drastically. The population was leaving the cities. The mayor of , Donato, abandoned the city in 1478. Four years later, the pestilence raged in Poreč again, and in the absolute panic, one could not even find a priest for the last sacrament. At the same time, about 1,250 people died in Trieste (9). In the 1505 epidemic, the public outcry was provoked by the behavior of the physicians who refused to visit the plague patients. Twenty years later, plague hit Trieste and Koper again, but only as the beginning of a larger-scale epidemic which was to rage through Istria again in 1527. The worst situation was in Pula.
A few plague cases were again registered in Trieste in 1543. Ten years later, the illness appeared again in Koper, and in 1554, in Muggia as well. Doctor Petroni discovered the source of the contagion in the neighboring swamps, actually in the mud which had been used for the construction of the city road (7). (This reminds of the miasma by Hippocrates, as well as the Trincavallo’s explanation of the ropes used to lower the dead into the graves as a source of contagion.)
The Jews were blamed for the 1600/1 epidemic in Trieste (which was not a rare case in Europe: one can remember the holocaust of the Jews from Strasbourg, blamed for spreading the “black death”; ref. 11).
Most authors regard the 1629-31 plague as the last Istrian plague of this kind (9). It was a case of pestilence of the European proportions, spread from Constantinople and described in Manzoni’s “Fiancees” [I promessi sposi]. The plague possibly arrived to Istria through Koper by ship. It further spread through Izola, Piran, Umag, and Brtonigla. Only in Koper, 5,000 deaths were recorded, which reduced the city population to some 2,000. The tragedy in Novigrad, Umag, Poreč, and Pula was intensified by the escalation of malaria (only about 30 people in Poreč survived). In Pula, only three old families survived, a few soldiers and newcomers – all together about 300 people. The Istrian inland was not spared either: Dvigrad was devastated and ceased to exist in 1650 (desolation was, actually, mostly caused by malaria which, as opposed to plague, constantly threatened the town) (12). Interestingly, Rovinj was spared (only five people died) – timely isolation and the burial of the dead on the island near the town probably helped to a great extent (9).
[See also: Outline of History, Version 1, Epidemie]
We do not know how much Sebastian really helped the Istrian population, but in today’s Istria many traces of his presence are preserved. In nine parishes within Poreč-Pula diocese, embracing the greatest part of Istria, three sacral buildings are dedicated to St. Sebastian: church in Lindar from 1559, church of St. Anthony of Padua, saints Fabian and Sebastian from 1381, and a mortuary in Boljun; the last two are also dedicated to other saints, and there are no artistic representations of Sebastian. Works of art representing Sebastian in other churches include five frescos (Beram, Dvigrad, Oprtalj, Nova Vas Labinska [Villanova d'Arsa?], and Draguć), eleven paintings on canvas, and twenty-four sculptures. Sebastian rarely appears alone in those works of art, but is often accompanied by St. Rochus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and St. Fabian. In the same area, St. Rochus is represented in twenty-seven churches (of which even seven are parish churches) and a far greater number of altars (paintings and sculptures) in other churches. Rochus’ cult is a direct competitor to Sebastian’s. A simple man from Montpellier, Rochus, pilgrimaged to Italy in the 14th century and, according to the legend (13), successfully cured the plague victims along the way. His popularity dominated the consciousness of the people who preferred him to other saints, as a newer and more efficient savior.
Enumeration of churches dedicated to a particular saint-protector does not show only ethnographic statistics, but, for example, following the churches dedicated to St. Rochus (above), the paths of plague epidemics can be reconstructed quite accurately. The logic is the following: when a church was built, there had to be a need for invoking the saint. This is thus approximately the period when an epidemic was spreading. If all the churches built in the same period are grouped, the lines connecting them can show the territory of epidemic spreading: this analysis is known as hagiotopographic-isochrony principle (14). Unfortunately, there are not enough churches devoted to Sebastian for such an analysis to be performed. However, the three churches devoted to Sebastian (Lindar, Boljun, Gracišće) create a small triangle in the heart of Istria that can be declared an island which the tide of Rochus’ cult did not manage to overflow, that is, an island of a far greater Sebastian’s cult continuity, that elsewhere disappeared in the 16th-17th century (cases of changing church devotions to saints-protectors, according to the epidemiological situations, are not rare in Istria). The fact that today there are no churches in Lindar, Boljun, and Gracišće devoted to St. Rochus confirms that it could really be the case of non-penetration of the Rochus’ cult. Naturally, in the later period, when the plague danger retreated, the situation with the church saints remained unchanged and Sebastian was never again threatened.
As Rochus cast aside Sebastian, in the similar way the appearance of Sebastian must have terminated the popular respect for St. Fabian, the Roman pope from the 3rd century, also invoked as a protector from plague (1). The frequent fusion of Sebastian and Fabian is probably based on the coincidence of the date of celebration of these martyrs, January 20th (15).
As opposed to Rochus, Sebastian found himself in Istria by chance, not only spiritually but in person. In 1818, the painter Grezel enriched the collection of sacrosanct relics of St. Benedict’s church in Vodnjan with the remains of the martyr Sebastian’s body. Among mummies and other remains of 250 saints, a part of the lumbal spine, the pelvis, and right hip bone, partly covered with remains of the muscles attributed to St. Sebastian, are kept today in a glass sarcophagus (16).
Invoking St. Sebastian or any other saint is not only an ethnographic peculiarity of medieval Istria – it is a testimony of inventive people, the way of their thinking, and an evidence of medicine of a long-gone time.
The study was supported by a grant from the Open Society Institute-Croatia as a part of the Ethno-Medical Reflections in the Istrian Medieval Frescos Project.
Received: January 8, 1997
Dr Ante Skrobonja