Today is the feast of Saint Sebastian. According to martyrologies he was killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. He is commonly depicted in art and literature tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows. Despite this being the most common artistic depiction of Sebastian, he was, according to legend, rescued and healed by Irene of Rome. Shortly afterwards he went to Diocletian to harass him about his sins, and as a result was ordered clubbed to death. The details of Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom were first written about by 4th-century bishop Ambrose of Milan, in his sermon (number 22) on Psalm 118. Ambrose stated that Sebastian came from Milan and that he was already venerated there at that time.
According to Acta Sanctorum, of unknown origin, but attributed to Ambrose by the 17th century hagiographer Jean Bolland, Sebastian was from Gallia Narbonensis in southeast France who was a student in Milan. In 283, Sebastian entered the army in Rome under Emperor Carinus to assist enlisted Christians. Because of his courage he became one of the captains of the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian and Maximian, who were unaware that he was a Christian.
Although Sebastian had concealed his faith, in 286 was found out. Diocletian commanded that he be bound to a stake so that archers from Mauritania could shoot arrows at him. The archers shot at him until he was full of arrows, and left him there for dead. Miraculously, the arrows did not kill him. Irene of Rome, the widow of Castulus (who had been converted by Sebastian and martyred by Diocletian), went to retrieve his body to bury it, and discovered he was still alive. So she brought him back to her house and nursed him back to health.
Sebastian later stood on a route where Diocletian was to pass and harangued him for his cruelties against Christians. Diocletian who had presumed Sebastian to be dead was greatly astonished and gave orders for him to be seized and beaten to death with cudgels. His body was thrown into the common sewer, but a pious woman, called Lucina, who was visited by Sebastian in a vision, had it quietly removed, and buried in the catacombs at the entrance of the cemetery of Calixtus, where the Basilica of St. Sebastian (San Sebastiano fuori le mura) now stands.
The church was rebuilt in the 1610s under the patronage of Scipione Borghese. St. Ado, Eginard, Sigebert, and other contemporary authors relate that, in the reign of Louis Debonnair, Pope Eugenius II gave the body of St. Sebastian to Hilduin, Abbot of St. Denys, who brought it into France, and it was deposited at Saint Medard Abbey, at Soissons, on the 8th of December 826.
Sebastian’s cranium was brought to the town of Ebersberg (Germany) in 934. A Benedictine abbey was founded there and became one of the most important pilgrimage sites in southern Germany. It is said the silver-encased cranium was used as a cup in which to present wine to the faithful during the feast of Saint Sebastian.
During the Middle Ages, Sebastian was a popular saint, particularly because he was invoked against outbreaks of the plague. But in modern times his popularity has waned. His attempted execution by arrows has been an enduring artistic subject down to the present, however.
Numerous towns and regions are named for Saint Sebastian, so you could pick a recipe from any one of them. I’ve chosen two seasonal soups from the region of Milan because it was Sebastian’s home for a while, and because I live nearby. Zuppa di porri e bietole (leek and Swiss chard soup) is easy to make, and a warming dish at this time of year. Leeks and chard are plentiful right now in northern Italy. Wash the vegetables thoroughly, chop them coarsely, and poach them in rich chicken stock. Done !! Some people add cooked rice for substance.
Zupp alla pavese is also a simple dish, but is considered very elegant. Take 2 slices of day-old bread and fry them in a mix of olive oil and butter until golden. Place them in a shallow bowl and crack an egg over each slice. Pour in boiling stock which will lightly cook the eggs. Top with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.