Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien, Gabriele d’Annunzio’s sacred drama, had rather profane origins. The incident that stimulated the realization of his long-standing ambition to write a mystery play based on the life of St. Sebastian was the sight of dancer Ida Rubinstein’s bare legs as he kneeled to kiss her feet following her memorable portrayal of the sadistic title character in Diaghliev’s production of the ballet Cleopatra. In the beautiful and exotic Russian dancer, with her long legs, slim physique, slender neck, graceful gestures, and air of mystery, the Italian poet, novelist, and dramatist found his ideal incarnation of the martyred saint.
D’Annunuzio was apparently agnostic, and his interest in religion, essentially artistic. There is even something sacrilegious about his conflation of the pagan narcissism of Adonis with the Christian masochism of Sebastian, who tells the archers: “Whoever wounds me most deeply loves me most.”