Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Fascination for St Bartholomew

José de Ribera 1591 - 1652
Martirio de San Felipe (formerly known as The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew) 1639
Oil on canvas 234 cm x 127,00 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Little is known about the life of St Bartholomew (Bar-Tolmai or son of Tolmai). He is one of the more obscure of the apostles. He was an Apostle according to three of the Synoptic Gospels. Even his name is not known for definite. Some say he was actually called “Nathanael”. In the Gospel of Saint John, he is called Nathanael. This may have been his given name and Bartholmai his surname.

Tradition through Eusebius of Caesarea and St Jerome and then through The Golden Legend has it that he undertook missionary visits to India and Armenia and that he was martyred in Armenia. His death was reportedly gruesome: in Armenia he was flayed alive and then crucified upside down for refusing to worship pagan gods.

In works of art Bartholomew is often represented with a large knife, or, as in Michelangelo's Last Judgment, with his own skin hanging over his arm. This fate led to him being adopted as the patron saint of tanners.

He is normally “paired” with the apostle St Philip.

Pope Benedict XVI gave a talk about the saint on Wednesday, 4 October 2006 in St Peter`s Square.

He said:

“We have no special information about Bartholomew; indeed, his name always and only appears in the lists of the Twelve mentioned above and is therefore never central to any narrative.

However, it has traditionally been identified with Nathanael: a name that means "God has given".

This Nathanael came from Cana (cf. Jn 21: 2) and he may therefore have witnessed the great "sign" that Jesus worked in that place (cf. Jn 2: 1-11). It is likely that the identification of the two figures stems from the fact that Nathanael is placed in the scene of his calling, recounted in John's Gospel, next to Philip, in other words, the place that Bartholomew occupies in the lists of the Apostles mentioned in the other Gospels.

Philip told this Nathanael that he had found "him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph" (Jn 1: 45). As we know, Nathanael's retort was rather strongly prejudiced: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (Jn 1: 46). In its own way, this form of protestation is important for us. Indeed, it makes us see that according to Judaic expectations the Messiah could not come from such an obscure village as, precisely, Nazareth (see also Jn 7: 42).

But at the same time Nathanael's protest highlights God's freedom, which baffles our expectations by causing him to be found in the very place where we least expect him. Moreover, we actually know that Jesus was not exclusively "from Nazareth" but was born in Bethlehem (cf. Mt 2: 1; Lk 2: 4) and came ultimately from Heaven, from the Father who is in Heaven.

Nathanael's reaction suggests another thought to us: in our relationship with Jesus we must not be satisfied with words alone. In his answer, Philip offers Nathanael a meaningful invitation: "Come and see!" (Jn 1: 46).

Our knowledge of Jesus needs above all a first-hand experience: someone else's testimony is of course important, for normally the whole of our Christian life begins with the proclamation handed down to us by one or more witnesses.

However, we ourselves must then be personally involved in a close and deep relationship with Jesus; in a similar way, when the Samaritans had heard the testimony of their fellow citizen whom Jesus had met at Jacob's well, they wanted to talk to him directly, and after this conversation they told the woman: "It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world" (Jn 4: 42).

Returning to the scene of Nathanael's vocation, the Evangelist tells us that when Jesus sees Nathanael approaching, he exclaims: "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile!" (Jn 1: 47). This is praise reminiscent of the text of a Psalm: "Blessed is the man... in whose spirit there is no deceit" (32[31]: 2), but provokes the curiosity of Nathanael who answers in amazement: "How do you know me?" (Jn 1: 48).

Jesus' reply cannot immediately be understood. He says: "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you" (Jn 1: 48). We do not know what had happened under this fig tree. It is obvious that it had to do with a decisive moment in Nathanael's life.

His heart is moved by Jesus' words, he feels understood and he understands: "This man knows everything about me, he knows and is familiar with the road of life; I can truly trust this man". And so he answers with a clear and beautiful confession of faith: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" (Jn 1: 49). In this confession is conveyed a first important step in the journey of attachment to Jesus.

Nathanael's words shed light on a twofold, complementary aspect of Jesus' identity: he is recognized both in his special relationship with God the Father, of whom he is the Only-begotten Son, and in his relationship with the People of Israel, of whom he is the declared King, precisely the description of the awaited Messiah. We must never lose sight of either of these two elements because if we only proclaim Jesus' heavenly dimension, we risk making him an ethereal and evanescent being; and if, on the contrary, we recognize only his concrete place in history, we end by neglecting the divine dimension that properly qualifies him. ...

[W]e can say that despite the scarcity of information about him, St Bartholomew stands before us to tell us that attachment to Jesus can also be lived and witnessed to without performing sensational deeds. Jesus himself, to whom each one of us is called to dedicate his or her own life and death, is and remains extraordinary.”

The subject was a popular image in Counter-Reformation Art, when the Church made examples of certain early Christian saints and martyrs. It also offered a Christian counterpart to the secular subject of the Flaying of Marsyas. The subject was popular amongst Neapolitan artists, the brutality of the subject resonating with the violence of life in the city at this time (and perhaps also with the subject of death ?).

But mistakes can be made. In the Prado there hangs Ribera`s The Martyrdom of St. Philip (El Martirio de San Felipe) (above). For many years until recently it was usually considered to represent The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew. For many years it was shown as such and many books still show it as the Martyrdom of St Bartholomew. However recent researches have proved that represents the martyrdom of St. Philip, favorite saint of King Philip IV of Spain. The picture is supposed to have been painted by this king's commission. It is one of the artist's mature works

More recently the British artist Damien Hurst depicted St Bartholomew in a striking more-than-life-size sculpture: St Bartholomew: Exquisite pain. Hirst said of his sculpture:

“He holds his own skin over his arm and he holds a scalpel and a pair of scissors in his hands so that his exposure and pain are seemingly self-inflicted. It's beautiful yet tragic, and like St Sebastian his face shows no pain. I added the scissors because I thought Edward Scissorhands [the film character] was in a similarly tragic yet difficult position. It has a feel of a rape of the innocents about it. ... St Bartholomew comes from woodcuts and etchings I remember seeing when I was younger. As he was a martyr who was skinned alive, he was often used by artists and doctors to show human anatomy."

Pamela Tudor-Craig, the distinguished British mediaeval art historian, said of this sculpture:

“Of the power, beauty of form, and classic dignity of this figure there can be no denial. Where the Apollo Belvedere has over his right arm a long cloth (dictated by the problems of marble in an outstretched position), Bartholomew displays his entire skin.

The pose is more Rodin’s John the Baptist than Phidias, but the outstretched right arm holds a scalpel instead of pointing to the heavens, and this open mouth crying in the wilderness voices soundless agony.

The horrifying martyrdom of the Apostle Bartholomew — he is reputed to have been flayed alive at Albanopolis in Armenia — would have been bound to attract Hirst. It follows naturally from his semi-flayed pregnant Virgin, and the diamond skull.

Fascination with death and torture, and the treasuring of relics is an aspect of folk-Christianity not appreciated by all, but with roots going back to apostolic times. There are seven letters by St Ignatius of Antioch that are generally accepted as genuine, and in one of them, written to the Christians in Rome, he beseeched them not to intervene with the authorities to prevent him being thrown to the lions.

Accordingly, his martyrdom took place in about AD 107, traditionally in the Colosseum.

Titian also revelled in flaying, although he described it in terms of Apollo and Marsyas; once again a subject where agony and beauty are brought into juxtaposition, for Marsyas’s death at the hand of Apollo follows his defeat in a contest of music. “

It is certainly a beautiful and spellbinding work.

Damien Hirst (b.1965)
St Bartholomew: Exquisite pain 2006
Bronze sculpture 8 feet high

But perhaps it is time for a fresh iconography of St Bartholomew. Perhaps that is what the Pope was trying to get across in his talk in St Peter`s Square. The saint was the man whom Jesus saw under the fig tree. And when Jesus approaches him Bartholomew recognises him ("Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!") one of the first to do so.

The ordinary man with the deep unbreakable attachment to Jesus. Stolid and no guile.

Perhaps this is what Rembrandt was trying to achieve in his depictions of St Bartholomew as can be seen from below.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669)
St. Bartholomew 1661
Oil on canvas
34 1/8 x 29 3/4 in
The Getty Center, Los Angeles