The ancient basilica of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura, which stands on the Via Appia Antica, was founded in the 4th century, but completely rebuilt in the 17th century.
The rebuilding (1612) of the church was undertaken by Flamino Ponzio (1560-1613) and funded by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633), a fabulously wealthy figure, who was the nephew of Pope Paul V (r. 1605-21). The cardinal had Roman tongues wagging in response to his openly homosexual behaviour. According to scurrilous gossip, it was the cardinal's sexual proclivities that accounted for his interest in this particular church.
The beautiful wooden ceiling is the work of Giovanni Vasanzio.
The sculpture of Saint Sebastian, in the Chapel of the Relics, is the masterpiece of Giuseppe Giorgetti. The reputed remains of the saint are housed in the chapel.
St Sebastian, a Roman soldier, is believed to have been martyred (c. 288) during the reign of the emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305). The saint is commonly depicted semi-naked, tied to a post or tree, being shot with arrows. According to legend, Sebastian was left for dead, but was discovered by a Roman widow, named Irene, who nursed him back to health. However, he was later recaptured and clubbed to death.
Sebastian is the patron saint of soldiers, archers and athletes. The saint was also invoked in times of plague. The ancients believed that disease was caused by the arrows of Apollo, which led to him becoming, as early as the fourth century, a protector against the plague.
Saint Sebastian is also acclaimed by many as a gay icon.