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Thoughts Like Music
...original soundtrack not available...you'll thank us...
20 January: The Feast of Saint Sebastian 
20th-Jan-2010 11:18 pm
candle
The candle in the icon that I'm using for my liturgical year posts was taken, as far as I'm able to remember, in the Cathedral of Seville, Spain.

I didn't grow up learning about saints. I couldn't tell you when I learned about them, it was probably another of those things that one eventually just knows without being able to point to a specific book or place/time where the knowledge was acquired.

But, I can pin down my first interest in them. I was 17, and for Thanksgiving, my parents took my whole family over to Europe. We meandered down from Switzerland to France dipping into Italy and Monaco along the way. Once in Paris, I could have spent every waking moment in the Louvre.

I was wildly, passionately, and deeply into my first (and, now that I think about it, longest) phase with an ancient culture, Egypt. (This started at 9 and continued until now, unlike other cultures that came in up to 10 years later for me.) I didn't want to spend any time with the European art, but luckily, my mum realized that one day I'd be glad to have seen it, so in we went. There were several pieces she wanted to point out to us specifically, but what I noticed was multiple paintings of a young man with arrows sticking out of him.

What struck me as odd was that in most of them, he didn't seem that bothered. See here and here and here for examples (not all are from the Louvre, fyi).
As I didn't know his story, or even that he was a saint, this was...well, just...odd. Cause, I'd be screaming. Not gazing up at the sky like I'm waiting for the bus.

Reading the labels for the various paintings, some additional info from mum, and some pouring through encyclopedias back home showed me that this is how St. Sebastian is almost always shown, with an arrow (or 20) poking out of him. Sometimes he's alone tied to a pillar or tree, sometimes we see St. Irene with him pulling out the arrows.

What strikes me about this is that while I didn't know who St. Sebastian was, any medieval European could have told me. For me, St. Sebastian was the hook that pulled me into the world of saintly iconography. One can almost always identify any unlabelled saint in painting or stained glass by what they are holding or what's around them. Or, with Sebastian, what's protruding from between their ribs. St. Catherine, my namesake, is shown either with a spiked wheel, on which they attempted to kill her, or holding a sword which actually did her in. St. Paul also holds a sword often. St. Peter brandishes keys. St. George has his dragon, St. Joseph has lilies, St. Christopher has Christ on his shoulder (though, that one goes a bit further in that Christopher is from Christo+pheros=Christ carrying). It's a quick way to identify someone, especially to an illiterate population.

I'm by no means an expert here, and am still learning the various emblems of the myriads of saints. But, sometimes knowing these symbols gives a little 'a-ha' moment in life. And honestly people, those moments are pretty much what I live for.
comments 
20th-Jan-2010 11:23 pm (UTC)
i hear you. i love the saints and their symbols.
24th-Jan-2010 02:03 pm (UTC)
It's like a secret code, almost. Except, well...not very secret, I guess. :)
21st-Jan-2010 02:36 pm (UTC)
I had to go wiki St Sebastian- so I have learnt at least one thing today! yay!
24th-Jan-2010 02:04 pm (UTC)
He was really popular at one point, I guess. There's paintings/sculptures/stained glass of him all over in museums.
21st-Jan-2010 07:45 pm (UTC)
But, sometimes knowing these symbols gives a little 'a-ha' moment in life. And honestly people, those moments are pretty much what I live for.

Very well said.

It's a quick way to identify someone, especially to an illiterate population.

And that in itself makes for a lot of food for thought. Because, yes, that is one reason that window-pictures (and statuary) are the way they are (full of symbolism). But also because it makes one think about the other ways in which a society would be different if most people could not read or write.
24th-Jan-2010 02:05 pm (UTC)
Cheers.

Yeah, the general illiteracy of the Dark Ages/Middle Ages/Renaissance makes a lot of things different than perhaps history often paints things.

I've been thinking a lot about that with the charge against Catholicism that they kept people from reading the Bible. Seems as though illiteracy made that a moot point in almost every locations...
22nd-Jan-2010 06:29 pm (UTC) - St Catherine
One can almost always identify any unlabelled saint in painting or stained
glass by what they are holding or what's around them

One would like to think so. However, although the sainted lady standing near the back at St Margaret's displays both a large wheel and a sword, the Rector insists she's St Barbara, patron saint of artillerymen and miners. For some reason, I've only just got around to checking Barbara's details here (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02284d.htm). I shall try to remember to check her Ladyship this Sunday to see if there's any sign of a tower with three windows.

Robin


22nd-Jan-2010 10:18 pm (UTC) - Re: St Catherine
How odd. Is it a spiked wheel or broken in any way?

You have some Comper windows up there, don't you? I'll have to make sure to come when the sun's up at some point. :)
24th-Jan-2010 02:11 pm (UTC) - Re: St Catherine
The wheel is neither spiked or broken, as far as I can see. I also noticed that the lady is holding a book in her right hand. I can't see any justification for the claim that she's St Barbara. It may just be wishful thinking; I imagine any church leader would appreciate the support of a saint specialising in thunder-bolts.

I've just enquired about the Comper windows (sorry, I don't usually notice things around me unless I trip over them). The windows in the lady chapel (south-east) are all Comper - one of them features a strawberry. So is the recently installed window (acquired from the convent) just outside the lady chapel, depicting John Mason Neals. Finally, there is one Comper window in the St Nicolas chapel (back of the church) depicting Our Lady.

Robin


24th-Jan-2010 02:26 pm (UTC) - Re: St Catherine
Sorry, that should of course be J M NEALE.

RAB
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