The Roses of St. Sebastian

Before he knew Christ, Sebastian lived like all the other young cavaliers of Diocletian’s court, wasting day after day in worldly vanities.

This was in the time when light‑footed Diana still roamed the woods in gilded sandals with a throng of her nymphs. But her beauty was already too weary, and the goddess sometimes had moments when she felt the shadow of age. Now she would hardly have transformed Actaeon into a stag to be torn apart by his own dogs: she would not be likely to spurn lovers who adored her.

But comely Sebastian, who resembled all of those magnificent antique youths with great golden naked bodies for which the goddesses yearned and pined, did not frequent the woods or bring sacrifices to the divinity. He was a member of the Legion of the Jovians, which had but one god: Diocletian.

The old gods were falling into oblivion. Everything the sacred symbols on the pedestals of gods and temple walls spoke of was slowly dying: all that remained was the sorrow of emptiness. Divinity was elsewhere than in old myths.

Sebastian believed in a sole god: the emperor, who was divine, who was “Jove”. He loved him and invoked him. Otherwise his life was a mere play of frivolous breezes, so delightfully dissipated, as was the charm of those transitional times.

Beautiful girls went into raptures over Sebastian, and the boy would laugh at them with that inner magic that is necessary to make beauty beauty. That was the effect of the transparent, pure, perfect gaze with which the boy looked at the world, and he remained internally a child despite all of his external vices. His soul was still fragile, while his body had matured to manhood, like a beautiful fruit, a sensuous peach clothed in golden velvet, enticing desirous teeth to bite into it.

He lived everything, but he did not feel joy from anything.

He was Diocletian’s favorite. He had a high military rank. He was surrounded by friends.

He felt that he had all the preconditions for happiness in his life. But nonetheless his soul was not happy. It lacked something for fulfillment. Sebastian thought about this a lot as he returned home from banquets, his head still crowned.

He was anxious and sensitive. He attributed a different meaning to people and things than other people did. He felt that it was pointless to continue living as he had been, gathering trifling pleasurable experiences as an apathetic mule saves the scanty twigs of scented heather.

Sebastian wanted more, more out of life, a higher goal and greater heroism. But so far there had been none of that. When he thought about his life to date, his memories struck a useless past, as drops of somber rain strike a marble grave stele. Melancholy crept into his young heart.

One day Diocletian was especially kind to Sebastian. He gave him a sardonyx gem on which the likeness of the emperor had been carved from a layer of bluish white on a black background. Diocletian was pictured as Jupiter holding a scepter in his raised hand, with an eagle at his feet. Across from him and staring fixedly at him stood Ganymede. The beardless boy with a feminine body resembled Sebastian. The beautiful gem seemed like the best work of Dioscuride.

As he gave him the gem, the emperor gazed for a long time into the youth’s eyes. He looked aged, and his face was set off lividly from the garnet‑colored walls.

When the emperor gave him the gem, Sebastian noticed that his hands were adorned with pearls that were too pale, showing his sickliness, and it seemed to him that his hands were fine and delicate, but wrinkled like the hands of an old man.

When a slave entered, carrying lighted perfume on a gold base, Diocletian breathed in greedily, as though he wanted to refresh his sunken state with the sharp scent.

Worries are plaguing the emperor, Sebastian thought. He remembered that the day before he had again heard a lot of talk about a strange sect threatening the emperor’s peace, about the Christians, increasing in strength throughout the entire empire, all of whose churches Diocletian had had demolished and whom he had begun to persecute cruelly.

Many of Sebastian’s friends had helped destroy the Christian cathedral in Nicomedia. Others had read what Tertullian had written about the Christians and what Lactantius was now writing about them. Sebastian’s young head was thinking about all of that now. Christianity – what a mysterious power, hidden, and therefore so much the more dangerous, in that new god, crucified by the Jews! It would be necessary for Sebastian too, if he loved the emperor, to fight with him against Christianity.

Suddenly it seemed to him, although there was no one to be seen near him, that he heard someone call his name.

He stopped. Was it an illusion?

The midday sun burned in the sky, shining like an azure stone, and a dead silence hung in the air.

Sebastian carefully looked all around. Nothing moved anywhere.

It was an illusion, he said, and was about to go on. But then he heard very clearly:

“Sebastian! Sebastian!”

Then complete silence fell.

Sebastian was standing by a white marble wall. The sun was beating down on the gold roof adornments. Everything was as usual, when he would walk this way from the emperor to his home. There was nothing spectral here, nothing supernatural.

Yet Sebastian trembled in fear, sensing mysterious things gaining power over his soul. He listened–and although the enigmatic voice was now silent, Sebastian was certain: someone more powerful than the emperor was calling him to his service, making him his warrior.

He felt that it was necessary to obey that voice, follow it, no matter where it came from, whether it called out from the boundless span of the blue sky, from its aggressive light, or from the underground, from the depths of the abyss where Hades guards his shades.

“I have been chosen,” whispered Sebastian’s lips, and he continued on with a fixed stare, until he suddenly felt somebody touch him.

He turned around. It was his friend Fabian. But Sebastian was shocked at his appearance. He perceived an immense sadness in Fabian’s face. His body, usually so lissom and supple, was now dejected and feeble. It took a long time before Fabian could tell Sebastian coherently about his pain. His beloved sister Lucina had been betrayed as a secret Christian and, with other Christians, thrown into jail in the house of Nicostratus, a courtier of the emperor. They were to be thrown to wild beasts to be devoured. Only Sebastian could prevent this from happening. He was the emperor’s favorite, and the emperor would not turn down his pleas for Lucina’s life.

Sebastian bowed his head, for he shared Fabian’s pain. But would it be possible to beg the emperor for forgiveness?

Sebastian recalled how the emperor had looked that morning. It was evident that Diocletian was too prejudiced against the Christians, that he saw in them too much harm to his empire, that he took very seriously their rebellion against the worship of statues of the emperor as Jupiter himself.

“Save my sister,” moaned Fabian. “I will never forget it.”

“The emperor hates the Christians,” Sebastian replied. “They have cast a shadow of age on his divine face, and dug furrows into his Jovian brow with their intrigues. I will ask him, but I don’t have much hope. First I will go to your sister. She must renounce Christianity and burn incense before the statue of the emperor.”

Sebastian made his way to Nicostratus’s house, to Lucina’s cell. Diocletian’s favorite had access everywhere. The doors of the jail opened to him of their own accord.

In a cell illuminated by a small, faint oil lamp above the door, Sebastian saw a beautiful girl resembling a phantom in the bluish hue of the darkness. Her hair bound up in a simple white ribbon in her black curls as a sign of her virginity, she concealed her body, which was to be torn apart the next day by the teeth of wild animals, in a long robe, hemmed with purple on the bottom.

Her eyes with their dark brows glowed with the suppressed fire of a happiness unknown to Sebastian. Joy shone on her forehead like a ray of gold on white marble.

Sebastian was astonished at the girl’s appearance. He had expected to find her in despair, trembling in fear for her life, but he had found her valiant, and as though inebriated with triumph.

“Aren’t you thinking about how you will suffer tomorrow when they throw you to the lions?” Sebastian asked, amazed.

But Lucina responded, “Until now I have suffered in my life because I have suffered for myself. But tomorrow I will no longer suffer, because I will be suffering for someone else.”

Sebastian left Lucina, confused. He thought about the emperor, so depressed and weak in all of the Eastern, Asiatic splendor of his court, among the eunuchs and slaves who beautified him, fixed his hair, rubbed his body with oils, burned fragrances in his chambers, scattered roses on his bed – and about this girl, so steadfast in this musty hole full of mold, mingled with the odor of an imprisoned body, so brilliant with happiness in the misery and filth of her surroundings.

Who had made her so strong?

Sebastian became immersed in dreaming, and it seemed to him that the voice that had called him that morning was the voice of the same master Lucina served.

He was waiting that very evening for the emperor when his slaves bore him in from the tepidarium lying on pillows through his chambers scented with nard to his banquet table, covered with flowers. The emperor’s hair, rubbed with arabis, was pinned up with a diadem, a white headband set with pearls, without which the emperor never went out. Shoes set with precious stones emerged from beneath his dark purple silk vestment.

Sebastian fell to the emperor’s knees, and as the emperor drank from a goblet of tamarinsk wine mixed with honey, Sebastian pleaded for the life of Lucina.

At first Sebastian noticed that Diocletian’s gaze fixed on him coldly. Then the emperor nodded to his courtier Nicostratus and briefly gave the order to bring the girl to him from the prison.

An astonished hum arose among the courtiers. They whispered about the Christians, and some approved of their being pilloried, buried alive in burning hot sand, thrown to the beasts, and drowned in the Tiber. Someone told how the Christian Tibertius had resurrected a dead youth with the sign of the cross several days before, just when he was about to be buried. And he said it was blasphemy that Tibertius had called the soul back as it walked through the asphodel meadow to the underworld.

Meanwhile the emperor reclined on an ivory easy chair for the banquet and, after him, all of the courtiers also settled in. The tables bent beneath the weight of copper platters full of meat, bunches of grapes, meat pies, gourds in honey, pomegranates piled up in pyramids, olives, pistachios, and almonds.

The warmth of the lights and the pans with live coals heated up the make‑up on the banqueters’ faces, dissipated the musk and civet perfuming their vestments, and soaked the azure powder and perfumed ash dusted in their hair, sweating beneath crowns of anemones.

Diocletian scowled in silence, nonetheless retaining the sublime and delicate appearance of a god.

Sebastian anxiously looked into his face. He loved him, and he was sorry to be wounding his benefactor.

Wine was poured from amphoras to mixing pots and from mixing pots to goblets. The smoke from the lights thickened into a cloud. The banqueters’ mood grew livelier. Everyone was oversated by now, but they still continued to eat.

Suddenly the door curtains opened and a guard brought Lucina in.

Her head cast back, her mouth slightly open, her eyelids shut, Lucina stepped into the raving pandemonium of the banquet like a pale phantom.

And finding herself across from the emperor, with a vehement movement she reached between her breasts and took out a cross, which flashed in the light, and raised it, as though she wanted the light flowing from the wounds of the Crucified One to strike the eyes of everyone present…

Sebastian was seeing the Christian symbol for the first time. And he suddenly dropped to the ground before the Crucified One. Oh, what terrible, bleeding wounds, true wounds inflicted on a god by people, on a god who was dying for those who killed him!

It was a horrifying vision, but, looking at the bleeding crucifix, fixing all the ecstasy of his being on it, Sebastian nonetheless felt joy flood his soul, the same joy he had seen in Lucina’s face when he had gone to see her in prison, joy from the opportunity to bear a cruel but at the same time extraordinarily sweet burden for love of the Crucified One, for which we must be shattered with exultation beneath the avalanche of torments with which the world buries us…

He heard Diocletian order the girl to pay divine honor to his image. He saw Lucina close her eyes, amazed, and conceal the crucifix in her breast; he saw her body tremble in undulant waves of mockery, and he heard her respond that it was not right to worship people as though they were gods.

The emperor stands up. A burst of rancor, demanding gratification, racks his body, as a tempest sways a tree trunk.

The precious stones of his diadem gleam ominously. The silk of his vestment rustles like the hiss of cunning snakes. He cries out terrifyingly. The red of his made‑up lips turns blue. His black eyes become terrible, and drops of sweat break out on his forehead.

“You have two paths before you, Lucina, which will lead you out of your prison. If you believe that Diocletian is a god, approach his statue and light incense before it, and then you may leave here in peace. But if you believe in the Crucified One, then you will not leave otherwise than on bare feet over pans with live coals, and may the Crucified One ease your way.”

Eunuchs set up pans with scorching coals. A dreadful heat rises from them in the atmosphere of the banquet hall.

“Well, decide, Lucina,” Diocletian laughs. “The emperor’s word guarantees you freedom no matter which way you choose.”

Lucina rises. She steps on the first pan. The flesh of her feet burns, and fire lashes out beneath her.

She steps on the next pan and smiles. She steps on the next and, courageous and carefree, plunges her toes into the red flames that have been fanned up in the rest of the pans… For there are no live coals beneath her feet. Lucina is walking on roses…and she vanishes between the door curtains…

At that moment Sebastian hears the voice again that called him that morning as he was leaving the emperor. The Crucified One is calling him to his army. He is urging him to step down from the emperor’s service.

Sebastian feels that he no longer believes in Diocletian’s divinity.

The gem with the emperor’s likeness burns his breast.

He decides.

“I am a Christian like Lucina,” he tells the emperor.

He gives him back his gift, which seems like blasphemy to him.

Silent, turning his back on him, Diocletian leaves the banquet hall.

The guard seizes Sebastian for insulting the emperor and throws him into prison.

The next day the emperor orders Sebastian to be executed by the arrows of all of the Jovians, to whose legion he belonged and whom he had betrayed.

They take him out to an outlying area towards evening. A strong wind is blowing in their faces and against their bows and spears and making the plumes in their arrows flutter, as though it wants to prevent them from carrying out their mournful intentions.

Indeed, all of them are trembling with pain, for they love Sebastian. He was their good friend. But the emperor’s order is irrevocable.

A tree rises at the bottom of a hillside covered with lentisk and juniper. They stop there. They seize Sebastian and undress him.

They strip off his birus, pull his dalmatic over his head, and tear off his hare‑fur underclothing.

Sebastian stands completely naked under the tree, to which they tie him with ropes. He is gazing at the heavens, the quivering waves of the ether, the crystal transparence of the distance. His lips whisper a prayer.

His body seems frail and girlish. It is sad and almost tormented even before the first arrow cuts into it. It is no long the body of Sebastian. It is the body of a saint.

The first arrow whistles – it passes by. Sebastian knows that it is the arrow of his friend Marcellianus, who suddenly drops to the ground, weeping bitterly for his dearest friend.

But then the next arrow rips into his body, into his pale flesh, into the tender, milky white tissue, and a pervasive red colors the skin in drops beneath his nipple and runs down to his hip. And arrow after arrow aims at Sebastian’s body. His friends long to shorten his suffering and their own horrible spectacle, so they pierce Sebastian’s body furiously with a whole shower of arrows.

The saint’s face, horridly beautiful, of a deathly and yet glowing pallor, with burning eyes like lit candles on either side of the tabernacle, shines with a heavenly luminosity and is suffused with supernatural joy.

It seems as though Sebastian has levitated from the earth, as though he cannot wait for the moment when he will meet his God in heaven, and as though he is going ahead now to meet him, although his body is held down by ropes, which are cutting into his bleeding flesh. He fixes his beautiful antelope eyes on heaven like sweet jets of flames of love, gushing forth from his heroic soul, from the depths of his boundless, youthful love.

Blood now makes the gold of his hair stick together, his light locks, so shining, so transparent, that they seem like silk, the most delicate down.

His forehead has been pierced. The opal color of his cheeks becomes red with wounds. And in a pool of blood his whole body is drowning, now frightful, torn to pieces, and nonetheless still charming, with an airy magic – his lithe and slender figure, although its alabaster is torn and bruised with fissures and scarlet holes, although its ivory vase is overflowing with the purple of blood like sacrificial wine into a puddle beneath the martyr’s feet.

It was already evening when Sebastian collapsed on the ground with all of his weight. The ropes broke, and the martyr sank into his own blood.

At that moment seven holy angels appeared by Sebastian and covered his nakedness with a white cloak, and heavenly light shone so brightly around the tree that Sebastian’s executors fled in fear in all directions.

When night came, heaven opened all of its gates and illuminated its blue depths with all of the stars.

The deep purple shadows retreated, and a sublime peace reigned over the entire earth in this supernatural light.

Christians came to bury the martyr’s body in secret in the graves of the apostles. Lucina walked at their head for her precious quarry, yearning to press to her heart the body of the youth who had joined with her in a single love, in love for the Crucified One.

Pope Cajus, the priest Polycarp, Tiburtius, and others from the Christian community prayed, singing funeral psalms.

Lucina embraced Sebastian’s body as a mother her child and brought her face close to the icy lips of the saint to see whether she could still detect the breath of life. But Sebastian lay motionless.

And as she was helping to lift him, the cloak covering the body slipped off, and a heavenly fragrance spread amongst them.

There were no wounds on the body of the Christian Antinous. The tortured head shone again with untouched beauty.

Everyone was amazed. Instead of blood flowing from wounds, the body of Sebastian, pale as ivory, was covered with roses, which were reflected in the opal purity of his stiff limbs so softly, so sweetly, as though the dead youth was sleeping in them, resembling a white flower himself, whose stem has been broken…

And when they carried the chimerical burden away, as they went roses fell from the dead saint, from his heavenly shroud, as though they were showing them the way his soul had left for Christ, a soul burning with supernatural fire, as their fragrant petals with fervently crimson purple.

And each rose fell to the ground like a drop of heavenly fragrance, like the scarlet rain of heavenly dew, consecrating the furrows of the earth.

Lucina walked, absorbed in thought, in the fragrance of Sebastian’s roses. She was thinking about the saint, how he had come to her cell in Nicostratus’s house, and how she had first gazed into his face, glowing with youth, into the comely face that seemed to come from the loveliest antique cameo.

Now, walking behind his pale, transparent, exhausted body, from which these roses of passionate heavenly love were falling, she was intoxicated by their exhalations.

In them was Sebastian’s soul, the fragrance of eternity, the fragrance of heroism, the fragrance of a fervid paladin of Christ, a knight with diamond armor, raising his Cherub head over the altar of all centuries, clothed and adorned in his own radiance and the charm of youth, more fragrant than all flowers, beside which all real roses of the entire world seemed to blaze with a too pale, too unreal hue…

Translated by Kirsten Lodge.

From: Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic: Růže sv. Šebestiána. In: idem: Gotická duše a jiné prózy. Vyšehrad, Praha 1993, pp. 115–125.