Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The St. Sebastian Icon in "Wit" (HBO, 2001)

Recently I read an absolutely fantastic play. As a quick disclaimer, to describing it as depressing is both an understatement and an injustice. I’m referring to Margaret Edson’s 1999 one-act drama, Wit, which deals with an English professor who has been diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer and is forced to face her life and her death. As an expert in the poetry of the metaphysical poet, John Donne (whose Holy Sonnets dealt with his fears and anxieties over death and salvation), she ironically finds herself in the position of so many of the Sonnets. The play is heartbreaking, but profound, and I highly encourage it.
Of course, while I love reading plays, there’s nothing like watching a play be performed as it was meant to be. Or, even, watch a film adaptation of it. Which is what I ended up doing. As it so happens, HBO adapted Edson’s play into a critically acclaimed film starring the wonderfully talented Emma Thompson as Vivian Bearing, the English professor. I believe the adaptation did the play great justice and aptly used the magic of film (opposed to some logistic elements and problems of live theater) to their advantage. Thompson’s portrayal is incredible: she manages to pull off Vivian’s sarcasm (or should I say, wit) and occasional arrogance, while managing to quickly change to despair and anxiety. It is a monumental performance from one of the great (and in my opinion, underrated) actresses of our day.
One of the advantages of film, is the ability to change sets with ease. On stage, a classroom or a hospital room are imitated. On the screen, they are real. I watched Wit with a very critical eye, not because I was looking for art per se, but because I was curious to see how the film balanced out against the play, which, as I said, I just recently read. But of course, art never escapes me, especially when it has purpose. Because, very shortly, I noticed a small icon in Vivian’s bare hospital room. It stood out against the sterile, nakedness of the room, and it caught my attention immediately.
As I said, the icon first shows up in a miniature form on Vivian’s bedside table. Even in its miniature from, with my very basic knowledge of Catholic iconography, I recognized it as an Italian Renaissance painting of the famous martyr, St. Sebastian (more on him later). At first I thought this was curious. After all, one usually expects to find pictures of family or friends in a hospital room, not of a martyred saint. Within a few minutes it made slightly more sense. Vivian flashes back to a meeting with her own professor and mentor, E. M. Ashford (Eileen Atkins). E.M.’s office is dominated by this giant painting (in a wonderful setting) of the same icon that Vivian has in miniature. While certainly impressive and beautiful, it still seemed strange.
Did Vivian keep the icon as a reminder of her great teacher and friend? At first, I thought that this was the likely case. But still, it seemed strange to keep an icon of a brutally killed saint as a reminder of one’s dearest friend. I believe that this was only part of it. I came up with two reasons why the filmmakers chose to include the icon.
The first, and equally impressive (in my opinion) reason, is to show E.M’s influence and presence over Vivian. Remember those ghostly portraits of old that I love to talk about. It’s a similar idea, the painting represents the person. And I would go one step further. The person, represents another person. In this case, E.M. represents John Donne. She first introduced Vivian to Donne. And Donne’s importance in Wit cannot be understated. Vivian constantly compares her moral and mental struggles with Donne’s poems. “Death be not proud” she quotes over and over again. She does not want to submit to the pain of defeat and ultimate loss. St. Sebastian, a saint, whose death is essential in his importance a constant reminder of that as well. The icon, representing Donne, shows that she is constantly pondering Donne’s message of life and death and struggle. This is a classic instance of a painting representing repressed emotions. Vivian may not say it, but she is thinking of these problems all the time. The painting reminds the audience of this.

Just as a quick aside, this painting was not included in the play. It was completely original to the film.
Secondly, I believe that the fact that it is St. Sebastian is very important. I believe that while the painting represents E.M. which represents Donne, is very important to its presence in the room, it is not the only or main reason. For all those familiar with the Lives of the Saints, I’ll give you a quick refresher course. Sebastian was a Roman who was a Christian and he decided to destroy the pagan idols. The Roman Army was not happy about this, and they stripped him down, tied him to a tree, and shot him full of arrows. Yet, he did not die. Eventually, St. Irene came and took him down and ripped out all the arrows. Later, Sebastian was captured again, beaten up and finally died, still a faithful believer in the end.

If you couldn’t get it from my brief description, St. Sebastian’s death was an extremely gruesome, bloody, and most of all painful one. His presence in the room is not only a reminder of Donne. It is a reminder of pain. The painting after all, shows him shot full of arrows. This is an extremely painful moment. Vivian may be considering life and death (ala Donne), but more importantly, despite her witty demeanor at times, the treatment has her constantly in physical and mental pain. This, I believe, is the most important reason, why Sebastian serves as the lone decoration in her room.

If you are curious, Saint Sebastian Bound to a Column by Pietro Perugino, an Italian Renaissance artist from the late 15th century. Perugino painted St. Sebastian many times, and I believe this painting is from around 1490, maybe later. I also believe that the copy that was reproduced for the film was based on an original in the Louvre. But then again, I'm not positive. Still, a marvelous painting used marvelously in an impressive film. 


  1. Really enjoyed your commentary and intriguing insights. I suggest also that St. Sebastian's eternal life after death after life after "death" compels us to question the finality of death as so many perceive it. It is an artisitic correlate to the semicolon vs. comma in the discussion of Donne's poem in the movie..

    1. Wow- that is incredible insight! I didn't even think of it that way, but you are so right. I need more intellectual insight like that for my other posts- please follow the blog! I'd appreciate your opinions.

  2. I show "Wit" in my medical ethics class. A common interpretation is that Dr. Bearing is a martyr to research as St. Sebastian is a martyr to faith.


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