“St Sebastian tended by St Irene”, c. 1625, Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588-1629), Memorial Art museum of Oberin, Ohio. The early Christian martyr, St Sebastian, was shot through by arrows and left for dead. He survived but was executed a few days later. It is said that a woman named Irene and her maid nursed him after his first ordeal. This is ter Brugghen’s subject. The saint is painfully suspended by one arm. St Irene eases his pain by supporting him while she gently removes an arrow from his side. Together they form a human triangle wherein suffering is enfolded by compassion. Anyone who has ever been to A&E would find it hard to pass this image without being moved. A sapling set against an evening sky evokes both Isaiah’s Song of the Suffering Servant and Christ’s lonely death on the cross. Such is the evocative power of ter Brugghen’s masterpiece. This s“ubject gained popularity from around 1600, when Catholics, both great and the good, and indeed, not so great or good, gave themselves to works as well as faith. After Trent, the care of the urban poor, the hungry and those deemed to be icurabili assumed a new prominence. The popularity of St Irene’s deed may be due to Cardinal Baronius’ recommendation in his Annales Ecclesiastici of around 1600. However, devotion to St Sebastian goes back to the Middle Ages. According to Paul the Deacon a plague of 680 in Pavia was only stopped when a relic of the saint was brought to the city. St Sebastian’s intercession was invoked for at least two reasons. First, in the Golden Legend he is said to have healing powers. Secondly, the arrows evoked the experience of bubonic plague. The first sign of infection was a boil appearing on the groin. St Sebastian could intercede when plague was present and his protection could be asked when it wasn’t. Usually, he is depicted as a beautiful young man in a loin cloth with arrows piercing his flesh. Renaissance artists availed of the opportunity presented by the saint’s martyrdom to show off their skills in anatomy and their knowledge of the sculptures of classical antiquity. But the real reason why St Sebastian was depicted more or less naked was the desire to associate his death with that of Christ, who, as the Gospels relate, was first stripped of his garments and then crucified naked. But like Christ, he also embraced suffering. In the Counter Reformation period, when the threat of plague was waining, but the urban poverty was increasing, his heroic witness to the faith was joined by this other witness. In works such as this one by ter Brugghen, holiness was made visible and achieved not just in heroic witness, but in the embrace of suffering and through works of compassion. In these days of the Covid 19 virus, might we reconsider the erstwhile significance of Saints Sebastian and Irene. Saints Sebastian and Irene pray for us!
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The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.