Tuesday, August 21, 2018

St Bartholomew, August 24th - Images of the Saints of the Roman Canon

This coming Friday, August 24th, is the feast of St Bartholomew the Apostle, who is also called Nathaniel. To commemorate, I thought I would post a feature on the depiction of him in art, as part of the occasional series on the art of Saints of the Roman Canon.

Very little is know about him, apart from the fact that he was one of the Twelve Apostles and came from Galilee. According to tradition, he preached the Gospel in Arabia, Persia, and India. He also is believed to have traveled to Armenia, where according to some, he ended his life by being crucified, or by being flayed alive, in a place called Albanopolis (or Urbanopolis) of Armenia.

In the Western tradition of art, he can be shown an elderly man being flayed or holding a tanner’s knife and his own skin, to reflect the latter of these causes of death.

The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew by French artist Valentin de Bologne. He traveled to Italy (as his name suggests) in the early 17th century and was influenced by Caravaggio. His work is typical of the Baroque art of the period.
The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew, Calvary, and the Death of St Mary Magdalene, by Jaume Huguet, a Spanish artist of the late 15th century. This is in the gothic style. Below is a detail, showing the left-hand part of this Triptych.

In the Eastern tradition, he is shown with a scroll, which indicates divine wisdom, in common with many others Saints. A scroll, incidentally, is often shown in the hands of the Old Testament prophets, but is also commonly seen in the hands of the Apostles. Both were given wisdom from God – the prophets through visions, the Apostles through meeting and knowing Jesus Christ. Later Saints may also be shown holding scrolls if they were also known for prophecy, perceptiveness, and imparting divine knowledge to others. One example is Ephrem the Syrian, a hymnographer and deacon from the 4th century well-known for his poetic works of theology. Where the scrolls are unfurled, quotes from the Saints’ own writings are shown.

A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons describes the common elements in the traditional iconographical portrayal: “Bartholomew, also known as Nathaniel, is shown as a middle-aged man, with short beard and hair. He is also shown holding the scroll of an Apostle. After his martyrdom, St. Bartholomew has appeared to a number of people in vision and dream, so his appearance can be deduced. He has appeared to St. Joseph the Hymnographer, blessing him that he might be able to sing spiritual hymns, saying, ‘Let heavenly water of wisdom flow from your tongue!’ He also appeared to Emperor Anastasius I (491-518) and told him that he would protect the new town of Dara.”

St Bartholomew in St Michael the Archangel Church, Baku, Azerbaijan
Finally, Rembrandt, the 17th-century Dutch artist, painted an image of St Bartholomew which is now in the art museum in Worcester, Massachusetts. This painting demonstrates to me why it is important to follow the guidelines set down in the 9th century by Theodore the Studite, the Saint who finally laid the iconoclastic period to rest in the East. (It continued even after John of Damascus and the 7th Ecumenical Council). He specified that holy images are worthy of veneration only when the name of the person and the known distinct characteristics of the person are portrayed. You can make out the knife, just barely, in the image. The name appears in the frame of the painting so it is worthy of veneration as well as being a beautiful painting. If these two simple additions were not there, it would just be a generic portrait and not worthy of veneration, since we don’t know precisely what St Bartholomew looked like, and therefore, without these elements, we simply wouldn’t know who is shown in the painting. 

This is one of an occasional series of articles written to highlight the great feasts and the saints of the Roman Canon. All are connected to a single opening essay, in which I set out principles by which we might create a canon of art for Roman Rite churches, and a schema that would guide the placement of such images in a church. (Read it here.) In these, I plan to cover the key elements of images of the Saints of the Roman Canon - Eucharistic Prayer I - and the major feasts of the year. I have created the tag Canon of Art for Roman Rite to group these together, should any be interested in seeing these articles as they accumulate. For the fullest presentation of the principles of sacred art for the liturgy, take the Master’s of Sacred Arts, www.Pontifex.University.

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