Search online for Irene of Rome, and all traffic is directed towards her martyr husband Saint Castulus. His Wikipedia entry appears at the top of the search list rather than her own. Isn't that just par for the course?
In the medieval European world, stained glass, mosaic, and art are how lay people learned their Bible stories. The priest did not even face the congregation and did not speak in the vernacular. Faith for the common man was based on images rather than intellect. Each saint was given iconography by which he or she is readily identified visually: Saint Peter has a set of keys that shows he is the guardian of the Church, Saint Cecilia has her lyre as she is the patron saint of music, and Saint Irene of Rome has another saint... Saint Sebastian - her most famous patient.
As we must, let's discuss Saint Sebastian. He was a Christian amongst the Praetorian Guards during the bloodletting known as the Diocletianic Persecution in the 4th century A.D. He is always represented by the arrows that we can assume made him a martyr -- only the arrows didn't kill him. He was rescued by Saint Irene, who had already put her own life at risk for approaching his body in order to give him a proper Christian burial. The Romans preferred that the executed remain embarrassingly exposed to the buzzards and the elements.
Again at great peril to herself, she removed his barely living body to her home and nursed him back to health. She also tried to convince him to leave Rome and proselytize in the field, but Sebastian was determined to be a martyr. He went directly to Diocletian, who had already ordered his death, to tell the leader that he was a sinner. In a fit of furious Imperial astonishment, Sebastian was ordered cudgeled to death and his body thrown into the sewer. Or, as some sources say, he was beheaded.
And Irene? Her intervention was ignored completely. Saint Sebastian would otherwise be represented by the club that killed him, hard-headed as he was, or with his head in his hands like the headless horseman, but no, her only representation is the arrows that penetrated him.
I have always been drawn to the story of Saint Sebastian. He is always so beautifully depicted in his (almost) last moments, writhing in the most Mannerist sense of torsion, contrapposto, his massive military bearing as defiant to death as his heart was towards Pagan Rome. He's the perfect Christian image: he had the good life at his fingertips, but he chose Jesus over the ease of having it all. Now he is the patron saint of archers, athletes, and a holy death, one that albeit is not clearly defined, ironically enough. He is almost always shown riddled with arrows and his gaze towards heaven. Occasionally, Irene is there in the background, lurking in the shadows while all eyes are on him, because he is the Apollonian ideal.
[I'm dying to bring up that he was an early gay hero too - just look at his depiction. He might as well be a boyfriend of Caravaggio]
We found the pictured statue of Saint Sebastian in a lovely shop along one of the canals in Amsterdam. He was spotted late in our shopping trip and added to our shipping container at the last minute. Since his arrival to our shop from across the Atlantic, we have determined that this was not his first voyage by sea… Pending further research, we tentatively surmise that this 24 inch tall painted wood statue is a Dutch colonial saint from a mission in Brazil in the 1620s. It may have stood at the center of a town square for the converted to say daily prayers.Those arrows penetrated the souls of the colonized. Again, no mention of Irene.
My attraction to Saint Sebastian, however, has little to do with his physique, but rather with the missing part of the story. In order to bring this discrepancy to light, we juxtapose our two foot tall Saint Sebastian statue with a relic of the Great War. The second picture here is of an American Red Cross Nurse's cart direct from the fields of Flanders. This is our representation of Irene: the anonymous woman who nursed a soldier back to health -- the basis for the survival of many a male hero and a testament to the sad obscurity to which many women who should have been venerated saints have fallen.