When saints go pin-ups.
Sebastian, cet obscur objet du désir.

Guido Reni, Yukio Mishima, Eikoh Hosoe and Derek Jarman

words by Larisa Oancea

In a famous fragment from Yukio Mishima’s ‘Confessions of a Mask’, the alter-ego character Koshan has his first erotic impulse while looking at a reproduction of ‘Saint Sebastian’ by Guido Reni: That day, the instant I looked upon the picture, my entire being trembled with some pagan joy. My blood soared up; my loins swelled as though in wrath. The monstrous part of me that was on the point of bursting awaited my use of it with unprecedented ardour, upbraiding me for my ignorance, panting indignantly. My hands, completely unconsciously, began a motion they had never been taught. I felt a secret, radiant something rise swift-footed to the attack from inside me. Suddenly, it burst forth, bring with it a blinding intoxication. Even a reader less familiar with the Renaissance painter could easily intuit that the image, despite its hagiographic narrative, has all that aura a pin-up could have.

Explicitly quoted in Paul Shrader’s biopic ‘Mishima. A Life in Four Chapters’ (1985), the self-mythologist bookish scene becomes a déclic for a staged photographic project by Eikoh Hosoe ‘Barakei. Ordeal by Roses’, where Mishima poses in a couple of shots as an agonizing Sebastian. Taking its cue from the sensual Italian Renaissance iconography – where the saint is represented voluptuously pierced with arrows (Piero della Francesca, Botticelli, Bellini, Perugino, Mantegna, Antonello da Messina, Titian, Guido Reni, Annibale Carracci and so on) – Hosoe reflects in a manneristic way on the nature of Eros and Thanatos, pushing the overpowering desire to the passio, an aesthetically perfect form of self-destruction: One day, Mishima showed me many black-and-white photographic prints of Italian Renaissance paintings. I believe that a person’s soul lives in any of his possessions, particularly in art objects, which live together with the artist’s soul. Therefore, I compounded the Renaissance paintings Mishima most loved into his body.

Eikoh Hosoe, Barakei. Ordeal by Roses, 1963

Few years after, Derek Jarman revisits the maze-like connections with the Renaissance iconography by proposing an explicit homoerotic cinematographic reading of the Sebastian’s martyrdom, a transgresive version of the medieval hagiographic text, Legenda aurea. ‘Sebastiane’ (1976) has, as well, deep roots in ‘Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien’, a five-act mystery-play written by D’Annunzio and orchestrated by Debussy. Here, the main character is portrayed as a hermaphrodite figure – to emulate the androgynous dimension of the saint, in the very first performances, the role of the protagonist was interpreted by Ida Rubinstein – secretly adored by the Emperor Diocletian. Jarman’s film, whose dialogues are entirely in colloquial Latin, is a flow of fetishist vivid paintings, explicit visual translations of Roman banquets – where male nudes in various stages of ecstasy positively littered the screen, as Margaret Walters pointed out – alternated by sadomasochistic scenes of persecution, allusively hinting to the classicalimaginarium surrounding Sebastian, commonly known as the saint of athletes.

Eikoh Hosoe, Barakei. Ordeal by Roses, 1963

The pictorial quotes in Mishima and Jarman are subscribed to the same intellectualized homoerotic pantheon, compelled to experience the pain of Reni’s martyrs not just visually but bodily; guided by the mirror stage theory coined by Jacques Lacan, the reiteration of the thinly veiled sex-appeal of Sebastian can be grasped, in both artists, as a self-reflection trigger and a way of being linked intimately, or even identified, with that obscure object of desire

Sebastian in others