Saint Irene of Rome

St Sebastian Tended by St Irene / Artist - Nicolas Regnier


Memorial : 30 March


Castulus and Irene were a married couple living in ancient Rome who risked everything to support the early Christian community. 

Castulus was a Military officer in the imperial palace of Rome during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, who was actively persecuting Christians. He is described as a quiet but zealous Christian. He arranged for Christians to gather for Mass inside the emperor’s palace because it was the last place that Roman authorities would search. He also sheltered Christians in his own home, which was attached to the palace. With a friend, he even went about the city, gathering men and women to the faith and presenting them to the pope for baptism. 

A Christian who turned his back on the faith betrayed Castulus to the prefect of Rome. Castulus was arrested and tortured before being buried alive in a pit  in 288.

The widowed Irene, continued to be active in the Christian community in Rome. She plays a large role in the famous story of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. who  was a guard in Diocletian’s army, and a favorite of the emperor, but he supported Christians who were being persecuted.

According to legend, when Saint Sebastian was discovered to be a Christian, in 286, Diocletian commanded him to be led to a field  and was handed over to the Mauretanian archers,  "And the archers shot at him till he was as full of arrows as an urchin," leaving him there for dead. Miraculously, the arrows did not kill him. The widow of Castulus, Irene of Rome, went to retrieve his body to bury it, and found he was still alive. She brought him back to her house and nursed him back to health.


This painting illustrates the Roman widow Irene nursing Saint Sebastian back to health after he was discovered to be a Christian and shot with arrows by Roman archers. Writhing in pain, Saint Sebastian looks heavenward as Saint Irene pulls arrows from his pierced body. Vicente López y Portaña dynamically composed the figure of Sebastian, with one arm tied above his head and his other arm held by an attendant, in order to more clearly display the wounds on his upper body and to allude to the martyrdom of Christ. Sebastian's bent leg reveals the bleeding gash from which Irene has already removed one arrow. As she leans toward Sebastian's knee, she carefully pulls the saint's flesh in order to extract a second arrow. In the foreground, the depiction of the armor and weapons Sebastian wore as a military captain signals that this event occurred in ancient Rome. 

López y Portaña's luscious palette and creamy application of paint contrast with the drama and emotion of this religious story. Like Andrea Lilio's Figures Tending to the Wounded Saint Sebastian, this painting differs from representations that show the Saint bound to a tree or pillar, moments after the attack. 


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