The Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend) is a collection of hagiographies written by Blessed Jacobus de Varagine in the 13th century. It combines the history and legends, in equal measure, of about 180 noteworthy Christians in the first few centuries after Christ. The story it relates about Saint Sebastian is one of the most remarkable in the collection. According to Jocobus de Varagine, Sebastian, who born in Narbonne and educated in Milan, was a soldier in the Roman army.
Sebastian had converted to Christianity, however he was also the head of the elite Praetorian Guard of Rome, whose members served as personal bodyguards to the Roman emperors Diocletian and Maximian. Sebastian took full advantage of the privileges of his position to protect and comfort the Christian believers, whose persecution resulted in them being condemned to death by the emperors. Sebastian’s secret was discovered and he was accused of treason on being considered that, despite being a man of Emperor Diocletian’s utmost confidence, he had conspired against him and this was an abomination to the Roman gods.
A patron is a saint or virgin chosen as protector for a group of individuals or a place. Palma chose a very special saint to safeguard its city – Saint Sebastian.
Sebastian was sentenced to death. The carrying out of his death sentence is one of pure legend and one of the most curious in the Christian faith. According to Jacobus de Varagine’s account, the emperor commanded that he be taken to a field, bound to a tree and fired at with arrows until dead. “The archers shot at him till he was as full of arrows as an urchin (the archaic English word for hedgehog) and thus left him there for dead.”
This is the reason why the most common iconographic representations of him show him half-naked, tied to a tree and with several arrows piercing his body. This nudity made him one of the most painted religious figures ever. The artists found in him the perfect excuse to freely represent the human body without the obstacles imposed on them by the morals of the time.
However, miraculously Sebastian didn’t die and days later he appeared before the emperor to harangue him for his cruelties against Christians. This resulted in a new torment against the rebel soldier: “Diocletian ordered that he be seized, beaten to death with cudgels and his body thrown into the common sewer so that the Christians could not retrieve it and honour his remains as befitting a martyr.” This time Sebastian did indeed die, but Saint Lucia appeared before the Christians and indicated the spot where his corpse was lying so he could receive a decent burial.
However, this respect did not last long. The Saint’s remains are among some of the most circulated relics in Europe. The corporeal remains or the garments of the exemplary Christians became a very precious commodity. A city, temple or monastery that had a prominent relic attracted thousands of visitors. It was good for business.
Counterfeits were the order of the day. At least four “bodies” of San Sebastian and countless remains are believed to be scattered throughout Europe. For example, in Ragusa Cathedral (Italy) there was once a tibia of exaggerated dimensions attributed to Saint Sebastian, but it was later proven that the bone actually came from a horse.
It is precisely thanks to this relic trafficking that Saint Sebastian came to be the patron saint of Palma. The relics and the belief that they acted as a defence against the bubonic plaque sealed the saint’s reputation in 680, the year in which they reputedly prevented the decimation of the Romans.
In 1523, a group of soldier-monks led by Archdeacon Manuel Suriavisqui brought a relic of Saint Sebastian with them to Palma. The city was very exposed to the ravages of the infection produced by the bacteria Yersinia pestis because Palma was one of the most active ports in the Mediterranean. Right away, Saint Sebastian proved to be an accomplished specialist in the control of the plague. The previous year, the number of victims had been in the hundreds, but the Saint’s arm stopped the spread of disease immediately.
The monks eventually decided to abandon the island in search of new challenges, but every time they attempted to leave the port with the relic, a storm prevented them. The logical conclusion was that Saint Sebastian, or at least part of him, had made the decision to settle on the island. After the corresponding negotiation he was housed in the Cathedral, overlooking the sea, and has since been exerting his protection over the city for over five centuries now.
Just one mystery remains unsolved. Saint Sebastian is revered as the deliverer of plagues and pestilence and his feast day is celebrated on 20 January. San Roque (Saint Roch) exercises the same role against the deadly bacteria and you are reminded of this fact on his feast day on 16 August. Why then did the authorities of Palma choose the saint from Narbonne to protect them instead of the one from Montpellier? With this decision the citizens of Palma were condemned to catch cold every year as they looked up to heaven during the saint’s day celebrations.