Saturday, December 18, 2010

Saintly Saturday: St. Sebastian

Today is the Feast of St. Sebastian and those who were martyred with him. Until I started looking into writing this post, I had no idea that I was already familiar with St. Sebastian. I wouldn't be surprised if most people were like me because St. Sebastian is the subject of dozens if not hundreds of paintings and homages. For example:

Yeah, he's that guy who was shot by arrows. Ironically, the arrows didn't kill him — those were healed by St. Irene. Eventually he was clubbed to death.

St. Sebastian is a military saint. He served as a captain of the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian and Maximian. When Diocletian realized he was a Christian, he had him bound to a stake and riddled with arrows. After being left for dead and healed by Irene, he went on to publicly berate the Emperor. He was rewarded for his effort with martyrdom.

Given my relationship with St. Sebastian through art, my own background as a graphic designer and Mr. Raggi's recent rant about art, I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on what I feel is an essential part of the hobby: art.

The visual medium is extremely powerful. Note how the very early drawings of monsters have affected the way they have been perceived within our hobby for decades afterwards. In my own case, the Japanese/Asia flavored Hobgoblins in MMI had a profound influence on the way the I perceived the culture, behavior and background of these humanoids in my games.

This power can be both positive and negative. For example, take the painting of St. Sebastian above. As a child I found it grotesque and shocking (I still do — especially when compared to this). Instead of leading me toward God and His saints, it became a false friend that led me down a deep dark hole away from the Church.

This view-point stems from an Orthodox theology of beauty. We do not just pray and worship with our mouths and our minds. We worship with our whole being — including the eyes. Beauty becomes a means of prayer. This is why Orthodox Christianity has such a rich tradition of iconography — these beautiful paintings are part of our prayer life.

To put it in mundane terms, the purpose of art is to inspire, not to shock or titillate. Indeed, those things that do shock and titillate often act like a drug — what shocks and titillates today won't tomorrow or the next day. As time progresses, in order to shock or titillate we must seek out ever more grotesque and ever more depraved images. They lead us down dark and nasty holes.

To put it in context of RPGs, take a look at the comments for this question posed by James over at Grognardia. Note how overwhelmingly people point to such things as this when they think of D&D:

This, despite the plethora of grotesque and titillating images that have been with the hobby since its beginning.

Please note: I am not saying that Mr. Raggi (or anyone else, for that matter) shouldn't be allowed to illustrate their gaming material with the grotesque and risqué. Indeed, I would argue that we are capable of using anything for good — it just so happens that some things are much harder to use in this manner than others. I would much rather have an axe than a sword if I were building a house, for example.

I am saying that art that inspires (like all the covers people pointed to in response to James' post) will have a much longer lasting and positive affect upon our hobby and those who play it than the grotesque and risqué.


THOMAS said...

Good thoughts, and I can appreciate your perspective. I don't like the sexually explicit art that often adorns rpgs.

Anonymous said...

"To put it in mundane terms, the purpose of art is to inspire, not to shock or titillate."


"I would much rather have an axe than a sword if I were building a house, for example."

Hear! Hear!

This is a great post. The weekly column format is really working for you.