Anton Walbrook as Saint Sebastian

Today the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Saint Sebastian, an early Christian martyr who became the patron saint of athletes, soldiers, pin-makers and plague-sufferers. (The Eastern Orthodox Church keeps his feast on 18 December.) Today’s blog post therefore features an image of Anton Walbrook as Saint Sebastian.

This image appeared in a German newspaper in 1936, responding to a scene in the film Der Kurier des Zaren which was released in Germany on 7 February. Adapted from Jules Verne’s 1876 novel Michael Strogoff, the film tells the tale of a Russian courier named Michael Strogoff who has to dash across Russia with a vital message for the tsar’s brother, wrestling with bears and fighting off ferocious Tatar rebels along the way. Captured by the Tatars, he is brought before their leader and blinded with a red hot sword by the executioner. It is this scene, depicting the actor in torn clothes and bared torso, lashed to a wooden pole, that evoked the comparison with ‘Captain Sebastian.’                   

So who was this saint?

According to legend, he was born in Narbonne in Gaul but brought up in Milan before travelling to Rome where he joined the army of the emperor Carinus. Sebastian was later promoted to captain of the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian, but the emperor condemned him to death because of his success in making Christian converts. He was taken out to a field where, according to the 14th century Golden Legend, ‘archers shot at him till he was as full of arrows as an urchin.’ Left for dead, he was found to be alive by a pious widow who came to bury him; she nursed him back to health, whereupon he returned to confront Diocletian and was promptly martyred a second time, being clubbed to death before his body was thrown into a sewer. This was around 288 AD.  His remains were retrieved and reburied near the catacombs; the Basilica of San Sebastiano on the Appian Way became a site of medieval pilgrimage. 

Sebastian’s story may seem to have little connection with the life of Walbrook, but the cartoon’s caption makes more sense if we unravel a little about the development of the saint’s iconography.

Shortly before facing the executioner, Michael Strogoff raises his eyes heavenwards, imitating the traditional pose of Christian martyrs.
Representations of the saint appeared as early as the sixth century, but these portraits followed the formal conventions of Byzantine art and made little effort at natural realism. In the early middle ages, paintings of the saint began to adopt more distinctive features; he was shown as youthful, clean-shaven rather than bearded, and the emphasis moved almost exclusively to his ‘first’ martyrdom – the shooting by arrows.  Renaissance artists could not resist the opportunity to paint a beautiful youth, nearly naked, in a contorted pose of alluring vulnerability, and over the next few centuries depictions of Saint Sebastian were undertaken by, among others, Hans Memling, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Piero della Francesca, Sandro Botticelli, Andrea Mantegna (three times), Pietro Perugino, Giuseppi Cesari, Carlo Saraceni, Giovanni Bazzi (known as ‘Il Sodoma’ for reasons mentioned in my book A Carnal Medium), Tintoretto, Titian, Guido Reni (seven times), El Greco, Gerrit van Honthorst and Peter Paul Rubens. These paintings celebrate the saint’s physical perfection and thus succeeded in recasting the image of Saint Sebastian in popular culture, from a middle-aged martyr to an icon of Apollonian beauty, imbuing him with a particular appeal for 19th century aesthetes who already idolised Hellenic youth.

Examples can be found in John Addington Symonds’ Sketches in Italy (1883), Walter Pater’s short story Sebastian von Storck (1886), Anatole France’s satirical novel The Red Lily (1894), John Gray’s poem Saint Sebastian (1897) and Montague Summers’ Antinous and Other Poems (1907.) Oscar Wilde viewed Reni’s Saint Sebastian in Genoa in 1877 on his way to Rome, where he visited Keats’ grave and made a strong association between the two dead youths: in his poem The Grave of Keats he calls the poet ‘Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.’ The title character of Wilde’s novella The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) wore a cloak studded with ‘medallions of many saints and martyrs, among whom was St. Sebastian’ and after Wilde’s release from prison he moved to France under the pseudonym of Sebastian Melmoth. Another of Reni’s Sebastian paintings inspired Frederick Rolfe to write ‘Two Sonnets for a Picture of Saint Sebastian the Martyr in the Capitoline Gallery, Rome’ which was published in The Artist magazine in June 1891. The same portrait had a profound effect on Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, who – shortly before his death – had himself photographed as Saint Sebastian by Kishin Shinoyama. This was nothing new – Jean Reutlinger did the same in 1913 and models posing as Sebastian had been captured by the cameras of Victorian and Edwardian photographers from Oskar Rejlander (1867) to Frederick Holland Day (1905-7.) Even a cursory perusal of these writings and images reveals the extent to which Sebastian had become a homoerotic icon by the beginning of the century. Audiences – including tuned-in newspaper readers – knew what was being hinted at when an actor or artist was presented as another Saint Sebastian. 


Although the examples I’ve cited above are drawn from English and French language sources, there were plenty of ‘Sebastian’ references in German literature, including the works of Walbrook’s favourite authors. In January 1912 Franz Kafka wrote in his diary ‘I am supposed to pose in the nude for the artist [Ernst] Ascher, as a model for a St. Sebastian.’ Alas, no record remains of this painting, if it was ever made. Egon Schiele, who went to the same school as Wohlbrück, Klosterneuberg, painted a self-portrait as Saint Sebastian in 1915. Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem Sankt Sebastian was written between 1905 and 1906 when he was working at Meudon as secretary to sculptor Auguste Rodin. It was published in his Neue Gedichte in 1907:


PictureLike one lying down he stands there, all
target-proffered by his mighty will.Far-removed, like mothers when they still,
Self-inwoven like a coronal.And the arrows come, and, as if straight out of his own loins originating, cluster with their feathered ends vibrating.But he darkly smiles, inviolate.Only once his eyes show deep distress, Gazing in a painful nakedness; Then, as though ashamed of noticing, seem to let go with disdainfulness those destroyers of a lovely thing.
[J.D. Leishman’s translation]


Picture‘I have a favourite saint. I will tell you his name. It is Saint Sebastian, that youth at the stake, who, pierced by swords and arrows from all sides, smiles amidst his agony. Grace in suffering: that is the heroism symbolized by St. Sebastian. The image may be bold, but I am tempted to claim this heroism for the German mind and for German art, and to suppose that the international honour fallen to Germany’s literary achievement was given with this sublime heroism in mind. Through her poetry Germany has exhibited grace in suffering.’

These words are from Thomas Mann’s speech in Stockholm on 10 December 1929, given at his acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The prize had been granted in recognition of novels such as Buddenbrooks (1901) and The Magic Mountain (1924) rather than the novella Death in Venice (1912), to which Mann appeared to allude in his acceptance speech. The following passage occurs in the second chapter of Death in Venice: 

‘a keen essayist had remarked once: that he was the conception of “an intellectual and ephebe-like masculinity that stands silent in proud shame, clenching its teeth while it is pierced by swords and spears.” That was beautiful, intelligent, and correct, despite its somewhat exaggerated accentuation of passivity. Because grace under pressure is more than just suffering; it is an active achievement, a positive triumph and the figure of St Sebastian is its best symbol…’

The novella recounts the final days of a middle-aged writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, who has become obsessed with a beautiful young boy he has seen while on holiday in Venice. A year before Wohlbrück began filming Der Kurier des Zaren, his name arose in discussions about a film adaptation of Death in Venice.  Mann had his doubts, however, feeling that Wohlbrück was zu schön (too handsome) for the lead role of Aschenbach.  The character is actually in his early fifties and clearly past his prime; towards the end of the story, he resorts to make up to disguise his age. Wohlbrück at this time was only 37. The film was never made, and audiences had to wait until 1971 when Dirk Bogarde played the part at the more appropriate age of 49. The German newspaper’s suggestion [above] that Wohlbrück should appear in a  film about Saint Sebastian, ‘made in the style of Cecil B De Mille,’ was not taken up either. The first, to my knowledge, was Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976.)


Thomas Mann’s family were intimately involved in the theatrical and cinematic circles frequented by Adolf Wohlbrück. The film that made Marlene Dietrich a star, Der Blau Engel (1930), was based on the novel Professor Unrat by his brother Heinrich Mann. Thomas’s son Klaus Mann was engaged to actress Pamela Wedekind, while his daughter Erika was married to Gustaf Grundgens for three years. Klaus portrayed his brother-in-law in his 1936 novel Mephisto, criticising him for compromising with the Nazis. Grundgens’ marriage to Erika Mann was thought to have been a lavender marriage, as was his later marriage to Marianne Hopper. After they separated in 1929, Erika embarked on a series of lesbian affairs, beginning with Pamela Wedekind. She opened a cabaret in Munich, Die Pfeffermühle, where anti-Nazi sketches were performed. Pamela Wedekind later married Charles Regnier; their son Anatole referred to Wohlbrück in his memoirs.

The writings of Thomas and Heinrich Mann had been publicly burned by the Nazis in May 1933, and both authors had left the country before Wohlbrück’s name was suggested for Death in Venice. Although the Manns were joined in exile by a great many other writers, actors, directors and leading figures from the arts, for the time being  Wohlbrück, Gründgens, Schünzel and others continued to work in Germany. The choice was not simply one of staying or leaving: remaining in Germany raised questions about how to live with the Nazi regime. One could endure for a while, emulate Saint Sebastian’s ‘grace under pressure’, but it was impossible to sustain the act for long. By the time Der Kurier des Zaren was released, Wohlbrück was looking for ways to leave Nazi Germany.


‘Grace in suffering: that is the heroism symbolized by St. Sebastian.’ – Thomas Mann

The Meaning of the word ‘Kodak’

Towards the end of 1887 photographic entrepreneur George Eastman was preparing to launch his ‘little roll holder breast camera’, which he believed would prove popular with the growing market of amateur photographers. In order to promote global sales he wanted to give the camera a snappy and distinctive name that would be recognizable in any language. After experimenting with various combinations of vowels and consonants – aided, it was said, by an anagram game set or possibly a bowl of alphabet soup – he hit upon the name ‘Kodak.’

It may have been a made-up word but the prominence of the letter ‘K’ was not purely arbitrary – Eastman confessed to a liking for ‘K’, partly because his mother’s maiden name was Kilbourn but also because it seemed to him ‘a strong, incisive sort of letter.’ His first public use of the Kodak name was in a letter to his patent lawyers on 28 January 1888. Four months later, the first ‘original Kodak’ went on sale and proved a runaway success. The tradename was registered in the United States on 4th September 1888 but when Eastman tried to do the same in England, the Comptroller of the British Patent Office requested a letter explaining the derivation of the word. In response, Eastman confirmed that
Kodak is not a foreign name or word; it was constructed by me to serve a definite purpose. It has the following merits as a trade-mark word: First. It is short. Second. It is not capable of mispronunciation.
Third. It does not resemble anything in the art and cannot be associated with anything in the art except the Kodak.‘Some years later he clarified the matter further in a letter to Professor John Manley, of Chicago University: ‘It was a purely arbitrary combination of letters, not derived in whole or part from any existing word, arrived at after considerable search for a word that would answer all requirements for a trade-mark name. The principal of these were that it must be short; incapable of being misspelled so as to destroy its identity; must have a vigorous and distinctive personality; and must meet the requirements of the various foreign trade-mark laws, the English being the one most difficult to satisfy owing to the very narrow interpretation that was being given to their laws at the time.’Now, the English may have been guilty of placing a narrow interpretation upon their patent laws, but this was not the case regarding their views on the etymology of ‘Kodak.’ Despite Eastman’s openness about its mundane origins, alternative theories abounded. The following letters appeared in Amateur Photographer during the latter half of 1896: Odds and Ends (editorial) 7th August 1896, p.112

The Eastman Company can certainly say with truth that they have added a new word to the English language. To many people, “Kodak” is the generic term for any kind of hand-camera, and shopkeepers are often asked for one in this sense. The new papers often use the word as a verb, and speak of people going “to Kodak” places, as readily as the term were to be found in Johnson or Webster.* It was indeed a happy thought to invent outright a new combination of letters; one without any worrying Latin, Greek, or other derivative. That it has been good for its originators goes without saying, and we have no kind of doubt that the actual value of the trademark, “Kodak,” would run into five figures. But the future lexicographer will certainly be puzzled over this word, which has had no forefathers, although he will probably soon find for the orphan a Sanscrit, or possibly a Chinese word which seems to bear sufficient likeness to it to claim relationship.


‘Kodak’ is in fact still found as a verb in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961) and the OED traces the first use as a verb to 1891, but the columnist was correct about the attraction people would feel in finding parallels for the word elsewhere. Over the next couple of months, Amateur Photographer became Amateur Lexicographer, beginning with these two letters on 14 August 1896, p.129:

Your remarks in the Amateur Photographer on the origins of the word Kodak made me wonder if it could not be found in Hebrew. Now קָדַח in that language means to burn, whence be bright or brilliant. Kahdak is pretty near Kodak, and Kodaks have had, it seems, a brilliant career. It is quite possible therefore to imagine the Eastman Company, as being true wise men from the East, putting a strange word on the market, and depending on the merits of the camera, turning the word Kodak into a valuable – as you point out – trademark. To others may it not be said “Go thou and do likewise.”

Yours, etc.,
Allan Bayne

The writer of Odds and Ends in your journal of 7th Aug., seems puzzled over the origins of the word “Kodak.” This word, common in the Hindostanee language, means a youth or boy. It is derived from the Persian. It is spelt exactly like we do, but the “a” is pronounced like “u” in duck. Thus, here is another instance of there being nothing new under the sun. Other oriental words have been anglicised in the same manner in connection with trade purposes.

Yours, etc.,


W.J.F. was quite right about ‘kodak’, as shown in this excerpt from the fourth edition of John Shakespear’s Dictionary of Hindustani and English (London, 1849.) It is fairly likely that ‘W.J.F.’, whatever his interest in photography, had spent time in India under the British Raj: the word for ‘boy’ or ‘lad’ would have been familiar to any colonial administrator or military officer.

The background to Mr Bayne’s knowledge of Hebrew can only be guessed at, although his quoting from the Gospel of St Luke indicates he knew his Bible; possibly he had learnt some Hebrew to help his reading of the Old Testament. His argument linking קָדַח to ‘kodak’ is somewhat far-fetched, however. קָדַח would be transliterated as qadach, and pronounced more like ‘kaw-dach’, lacking Eastman’s click-click ‘k’ sound. Not to be outdone, Mr Bayne returned to the discussion on 28th August p.169. It is at this point that both his pen and his train of thought began to run rather too fast:

The Hindostanee word “Kodak,” mentioned by W.J.F., is perhaps found in our own language – in English in the word “kiddy,” and in Scotch, “cuddy” (ass). Cuddy ass = once perhaps to boy ass, is prevalent in Scotland. It is quite possible the Hebrew קָדַח to burn = French, chaud i.e. in English, hot. The verb,”kid,” meaning to show, discover, allied to the German kunde (not a bad word for a camera), meaning knowledge, news etc., is just the first part of kodak.
Webster is dissatisfied with the derivation of “God” from “good.” “God” may be derived from the same word as the French chaud, the letters of both being the same etymologically. Both begin with a guttural and end with a dental.
“Goad” would mean the thorn-like flame as well as [the] feeling it produces.
“Guide” would mean light, giving therefore directing power of light.
“Goat” and “Kodak boy” as above, would mean the active, leaping power of fire.
“God” would then mean light in all its powers.
– I am, etc.Allan BaynePerhaps wisely, W.J.F. declined to respond to Mr Bayne’s ever-evolving theories, and further discussion of the matter was absent from columns of the Amateur Photographer for the next fortnight. Then, on 11th September, Mr Bayne returned to make a few final points of a decidedly spiritual nature. (p.209)Sir,

Ere we depart from the word Kodak, as suggested by your editorial note, the chief word has yet to be spoken. If “God, as we found, may mean light in all its powers (Kodak, God act), test the new meaning in one supreme place. Solomon’s conclusion will then be, light (for “God”) will bring every work into judgment, whether it be good or whether it be evil. As the photographer’s work is all brought to judgment and is worthy of gold, silver, copper and writing, when brought to the light of sun and soul, so it is with the works of every man, woman and child – our works, from a photographic exhibition, a one woman or man exhibition, to the spiritual powers that surround us. “There is nothing secret” – see the 139th Psalm. The unseen writing of the seen is not all, there is also the writing of the unseen. In Eccles. X,20 there is the Hadography (unseen writing) of the thoughts also going on.
“The eye cannot be filled with seeing” all the finest photographs, and photography is not an end in itself. Are not all the care, time, knowledge, experience and guidance required to produce a photograph, but a poor thing in their results, unless they be a picture and only a picture of what is necessary to produce a man and woman worthy of their divine original.

Yours, etc.
Allan Bayne

The Scriptural quotations that Bayne cites in support of his ramblings are apt: Psalm 139 begins ‘Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird in the sky may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say,’ while Ecclesiastes Chap. 10, vs. 20 warns ‘You perceive my thoughts from afar…Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely.’ I remain unsure about what he means by ‘Hadography’, although possibly he is referring to Steganography, a form of unseen writing (from the Greek στεγανός, meaning ‘concealed’ and γραφή. meaning ‘writing.’

I can only imagine how bemused George Eastman would have been.

Tomorrow – Freudian interpretations of ‘You push the button and we do the rest.’

Daguerre Anniversary

It was 175 years ago today that the invention of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (left) was officially made public. On 7 January 1839 François Arago told an astonished meeting of the Académie des Sciences in Paris about Daguerre’s success with his new technique for capturing and fixing an image. Details were not revealed in his speech, but members of the Académie were shown examples of the images, which came to bear the name of their inventor.

Daguerreotypes were made by holding a thin plate of silver-coated copper over iodine fumes which coated the surface in light-sensitive silver iodide. When exposed to light in the camera, this produced a latent image which could then be developed with heated mercury. The image was then fixed using common salt – a process later improved by using ‘hypo’ or hyposulphite of soda.


The highly polished silver surface of the plate gives daguerreotypes their distinctive mirror-like reflective appearance, but it also makes them quite tricky to photograph – my attempt to photograph one of my own daguerreotypes (right) does not do justice to this lovely image of two young girls.The great beauty of Daguerre’s process is that the resulting images are remarkably detailed, clear and precise. This gave them the edge over the rival process invented by William Henry Fox Talbot (below) who was caught off guard by Arago’s announcement.


Henry Talbot had been working on his own ‘photogenic drawing’ process for several years but, unaware of Daguerre’s research on the other side of the Channel, he felt no sense of urgency about publishing his findings. When news of Arago’s announcement reached England he bitterly regretted his tardiness, and – until he knew more about Daguerre’s process – Talbot feared that his efforts might all have been for nothing. He hastily wrote up his notes and presented a paper to the Royal Society at the end of the month. It still took a while to catch up with the Frenchman, and Talbot’s early images were no competition for the jewel-like precision of the daguerreotype. By 1841, however, he had made significant advances and his ‘calotype’ process possessed aesthetic qualities that the daguerreotype lacked.


Although this image looks similar to the daguerreotype above, it is in fact an ambrotype, made using the wet collodion process. A closer look will reveal that the image is on a glass plate that has a horizontal crack. Ambrotypes have a darker, duller appearance than daguerreotypes.I bought this in an antique shop and they are relatively inexpensive.

The wet collodion process was invented in 1851 and involved pouring a solution of collodion over a glass plate which was then immersed in silver nitrate solution and exposed while still wet: hence the name. The resulting negative image could be used to produce any number of positive prints; these were usually made on albumen paper.The ambrotype is a slight variation on this process: instead of using the glass plate as a negative, the back of the plate was painted with black varnish and it was then placed inside a sealed case similar to those used to protect daguerreotypes. When viewed against the dark background, the negative image actually looks like a positive one – an illusion often further enhanced through the use of hand tinting.Archer published details of his process in The Chemist magazine in March 1851. Daguerre died four months later, on 10 July 1851. Despite its reliance on dangerous chemicals, the wet collodion process soon supplanted the daguerreotype.


Daguerre may have given his name to the process, but there were others who contributed to the invention of the daguerreotype. He had been seeking ways to capture images since the mid-1820s, while earning his living with hugely popular diorama shows in Paris and London. These comprised two or more large paintings that were displayed in darkened auditoriums with an ingenious arrangement of theatrical effects such as moving stages and alternating light effects. This oil painting of Holyrood Chapel (left) was painted by Daguerre in 1824 and was used as the basis for a diorama show in Paris, London and Liverpool. In 1829 he went into partnership with Nicéphore Niépce, whose View from the Window at Le Gras (1826) is the world’s oldest surviving photograph. Niépce died in 1833 and his contribution to Daguerre’s achievements was ignored until relatively recently.