My husband Bruce and I first saw this panel—one of two--in a ragtag sort-of-antique store in Charlottesville, Virginia. We bought both for $150 dollars, the panels’ embroidery caked with grime, both pieces basted onto a ratty gold bedspread. They come from a priest’s chasuble or robe, and date back to the early 1800s. One panel would have been sewn onto the back of the robe, and one on the front. They’re hand-embroidered with a thick, metallic gold thread on black velvet; the black means funerary use.
This panel I’m showing holds an image of St Sebastian, whose figure is hand-painted either on leather or some very heavy, tan fabric. The fletchings of the arrows stuck in his body are large and gold but the lines in his flesh, pencil thin. There are only two arrows. Sebastian is young, rosy, gazing up at a large embroidered star.
The other panel shows two angels kneeling before a monstrance--a vessel for the host, spoked like a gold sun. The wafer lies in the center of the monstrance, visible through a small gold window. Martyrdom on one side of the chasuble, heaven and resurrection on the other. This robe seems to suggest a good news-bad news type of deal.
Why are these the images of where I am? Because I am stuck here, in the small living area where they hang above the couch, framing a window, and I’m doubly stuck as it’s rained here in the Pacific Northwest for much of the pandemic. That’s a proximate thing.
The terrible events that began in this country in May form the non-proximate, events so terrible that to recite them would be both redundant and reductive. When I see these panels now, stripped of so much of my elsewhere-life, I can’t stop trying to place them where they once spoke to the grieving. The three of us have become an intimacy. I sat in front of these panels during a long, slow recovery from a psychotic episode last fall.
My family has multiple members with bipolar disorder, one of them nonwhite. My whiteness gives me protection against cops with guns. Others I love have no such protection—I know too well the deadly combination of police, racism, and disability. A third-to-half of fatal police killings involve disability in this country, with about one-quarter of them involving a psychiatric episode. And a disproportionate number of those killed, black or brown.
There was Osaze Osagie, autistic and schizophrenic, whose parents called 911 for a well check on their son when his text messages sounded suicidal. Osaze died by bullet within twenty seconds of police entering his apartment. Laquan McDonald, shot in the back at the age of seventeen, suffered from PTSD. There are thousands more. I know no situation with my loved ones could be so desperate that I would pick up the phone and dial those three numbers.
For me this is one of the most compelling arguments for defunding the police, who are not only far too ready to harm the black and brown, but who often can’t interpret a reaction such as claustrophobia as less than willed resistance. If the police had to take in George Floyd—they did not, but let’s make it a thought experiment—they could have waited for a car with clear windows instead of ones blacked out. Any reasonably savvy mental health practitioner would know this. Let’s send those qualified people.
I did a podcast about this last week, about police violence, disability, and the need for defunding, reallocating, and I did it sitting in front of St Sebastian. As I talked, I watched his rosy body. It’s the once-robe’s two-sidedness that catches me now. How the priest might have moved through droning organ and incense and chosen which way to turn toward the mourners. Those present may never have seen this funerary robe; it would surprise. He might have worn St. Sebastian, with his arrows—the bad news--facing his audience during the sermon, then turned to expose the redemptive monstrance at the climactic moment of the mass.
Or maybe the panels displayed the other way, St Sebastian at the climactic moment. This is your redemption, and your human pain, all at once; figure it out. Maybe both sides are bad news--only the robe’s angels get to worship the host, after all.
However it went, I can’t stop looking. How I am is where I am. St Sebastian, monstrance, tiny window by large window, one perhaps hopeful, one so studied that by now it’s almost blank.