Sant Sebastià: The patron saint of Palma
20th January is the day of Sant Sebastià, the current patron saint of Palma.
In this post we will explain who Sebastian was, his relationship with the plague and how he became the patron saint and protector of the city of Palma.
Who was Sebastian?
Sebastian was one of the many Roman soldiers who were martyred for their Christian faith.
He was born in Narbonne (France) in the middle of the 3rd century (although some writers place him in Milan) into a military family. He became captain of the first court of the Praetorian Guard, a position held only by illustrious people. His dedication earned him the praise of all his peers and especially of the Emperor Maximian (250-310); at that time the Roman Empire was ruled by two emperors: in the East by Diocletian and in the West by Maximian.
Sebastian, whenever his duties permitted, visited imprisoned Christians and helped the weakest and most needy. This work entailed great danger, since Maximian undertook a purge of Christian elements in his troops, expelling all Christian soldiers from his army. Finally, another soldier denounced him to the emperor.
Maximian felt betrayed. He called him and forced him to choose between remaining a Christian or continuing in the army. Sebastian said he did not want to renounce his beliefs and the emperor decided to kill him.
Maximian chose the best archers to be shot. The soldiers took him to the Palatine stadium, stripped him naked and tied him to a tree. He was showered with arrows and the archers left him for dead and left him there. A Christian woman named Irene, wife of Castulus (an official of the emperor who had converted to Christianity), who appreciated Sebastian’s advice, went with a group of friends to Sebastian’s torture. When the soldiers left, they approached him and found that Sebastian was still alive, and Irene took him to her house where she dressed his wounds. There are various hypotheses as to how Sebastian survived: it was God himself who deflected some of the arrows; the shooters were secretly Christians; or that they were not very skilful.
When he was healed, Sebastian presented himself to Maximian who, after recovering from his initial surprise, because he thought him dead, sent for his soldiers to whip him to death.
The Roman soldiers, once dead, took his body and threw it into one of the main sewers of the city. The body was recovered again by the Christians, led by Irene and her maid Lucina. They buried him in an underground cemetery on the Appian Way. His tomb soon became the centre of a large crypt.
The body remained in the tomb in the crypt until 826, when Eugene II had it disinterred and taken to the Vatican. Part of his body was given to the church of Saint Medard in Soissons (France). By order of Leo IV, the head, along with other relics, was placed on the high altar of the Church of the Four Crowned Saints.
For a long time, pilgrims visiting the basilica on the Appian Way continued to venerate the empty tomb of the saint in the crypt, until Honorius III re-consecrated the altar in the crypt in 1218, transferring the relics from the Vatican to it.
What is Sebastian's connection with the plague?
Since ancient times it has been believed that plagues, epidemics and diseases are divine punishments for sinful human behaviour. All of them, since ancient times, are often represented in the form of arrows, as for example in the Iliad, where Apollo’s arrows are the cause of an epidemic as a consequence of revenge; or Psalm 64 of the Vulgate where it says: “But God will strike them with arrows; their plagues will be sudden”.
Thus, in this case Sebastian, according to the legends, is a survivor of a raid. He is therefore chosen as the advocate of the plague, represented by the arrows of the soldiers of the Roman Empire. The symbolic association of the arrows with the great epidemics encouraged his identification as the patron saint of plague victims.
Sebastian as patron saint of Palma:
The first records in Mallorca of religious honours to San Sebastián are only found in Pollença in 1345. It is believed that his cult began as early as the 15th century. The first testimony dates from mid-January 1440: an act of the Gran i General Consell (the highest political-administrative representative body) that records the request of the jurats and delegates of the part forana to declare the saint’s day a public holiday.
According to the chronicles, in 1523, coinciding with the end of the Germanies, Mallorca suffered an epidemic of plague. This was one of the worst, not because of the number of victims, but because it could not be contained. One day Manuel Suriavisqui, archdeacon of San Juan de Rodas, arrived in Palma carrying a bone from the arm of Saint Sebastian.
With the arrival of the relic, many plague-stricken people were miraculously healed simply by praying to the saint. This prodigy, in addition to the heavy storm that prevented Suriavisqui from continuing his journey on several occasions, was interpreted as a mandate from the divine will: the relic was to remain here to continue protecting the citizens.
On 15 September 1523 the bone was solemnly donated to the Seu. In 1541 he already had an altar in the Seu de Mallorca and the festivity was declared d’Eloi (ringing the church’s main bell) and a salve was sung in the afternoon before his altar; in exchange the jurats of the city (promoters of the chapel) undertook each year to donate four red candles, four white candles and pay four pounds to the clavario of the Seu.
Devotion to Saint Sebastian grew and in 1634, the jurors requested that Saint Sebastian be declared the patron saint and protector of Palma, and so the former patron saint of Palma, l’Àngel Custodi, was deprived of his position. The title of patron saint was confirmed by the Holy See on 18th June 1868.