Wednesday, August 24, 2022

The Legend of St Bartholomew

In all three Synoptic Gospels, Saints Philip and Bartholomew are named fifth and sixth in the company of the Twelve Apostles, and then nothing else is said about them. The latter is traditionally identified with Nathanael, who figures prominently at the end of the first chapter of St John’s Gospel, and is mentioned at the beginning of the last chapter among those who saw the Risen Lord at the sea of Tiberias. This is partly because in John 1, it is Philip, with whom he is always paired in the Synoptics, who brings him to Christ, and partly because Bartholomew is a patronymic, “son of Tolmai”, which would make “Nathanael” his personal name. The custom of the Church accepts this identification, but always uses the name Bartholomew in the liturgy.
The Apostles Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew and Simon Thaddeus, each of whom contributes one article to the Apostles’ Creed, following a popular medieval legend. 1483-7, by the workshop of the Spanish painter Miguel Ximenez. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
However, the Roman Gospel of his feast day is not his exchange with Christ recorded in St John (1, 44-51), but rather, St Luke’s list of the Twelve Apostles, and the beginning of the Sermon on the Plain, 6, 12-19.
“At that time: Jesus went out into a mountain to pray, and he passed the whole night in the prayer of God. And when day was come, he called unto him his disciples; and he chose twelve of them (whom also he named apostles): Simon, whom he surnamed Peter, and Andrew his brother, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, James the son of Alpheus, and Simon who is called Zelotes, and Jude, the brother of James, and Judas Iscariot, who was the traitor. And coming down with them, he stood in a plain place, and the company of his disciples, and a very great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem, and the seacoast both of Tyre and Sidon, who were come to hear him, and to be healed of their diseases. And they that were troubled with unclean spirits, were cured. And all the multitude sought to touch him, for virtue went out from him, and healed all.”
This choice depends on the final words, referring to the healings of the sick and the possessed, since in his various apocryphal acts Bartholomew effects many cures of both kinds. Many pre-Tridentine breviaries give a fairly full account of these stories, which in their broad outline are similar to the apocryphal acts of some of the other Apostles, most particularly those of St Matthew. Bartholomew goes to India and silences a demon in a temple where people had been wont to come for healing. He then heals the possessed daughter of a king, who embraces Christianity, and helps the Apostle to convert many people, including a good number of the pagan priests. Many impressive miracles and healings attend this preaching, but also excite the jealousy of some of the pagan priests, who remain unconverted, and convince the king’s brother to rise up against him. The latter kills the Apostle, but come to a bad end, slain by a demon, as are the pagan priests who egged him on, and the faith flourishes in the region.
(Two panels of an altarpiece depicting the legend of St Bartholomew by the Sienese painter Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio, ca. 1435. (Public domain images from Wikimedia Commons.) In the first, the Apostle is tried before the King Astyages...
and in the second, beaten with clubs.)
Already by the beginning of the 13th century, the Ordinal of Pope Innocent III, the ancestor of the Breviary of St Pius V, had reduced this story to a single lesson, a very basic outline of barely more than 100 words. This is a sure sign that even in an age which has, and in many ways deserves, a reputation for uncritical acceptance of all kinds of legends, there was an awareness that the tale is not historically reliable. This lesson does, however, accept the common tradition, going back to Eusebius of Caesarea and St Jerome (both in the 4th century), that Bartholomew preached in Lycaonia, a central region of Asia Minor, before going to India, and then ended his days in Armenia. The oldest version of his acts says that he was beaten with rods and then beheaded; by the high Middle Ages, the tradition was commonly accepted that he was skinned alive before his beheading.
Just as many other Saints are depicted holding the instruments of their passion, St Bartholomew is therefore often shown holding the knife by which he was flayed.
St Bartholomew, by Cecco di Pietro, 1370-1400 ca. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0
Artists could also take the opportunity to display their knowledge of anatomy by showing him actually flayed. A particularly good example of this is found in the cathedral of Milan, a sculpture by Marco d’Agrate completed in 1562. In the inscription on the base, the artist cleverly pretends to fear being mistaken for Praxiteles, the most famous sculptor of ancient Greece. “Non me Praxiteles, sed Marcus finxit Agrates. – It was not Praxiteles who made me, but Marco from Agrate.”
Image from Wikimedia Commons by Darafsh, CC BY-SA 3.0
The best known image of St Bartholomew, however, is certainly that in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, not least because of the popular but mistaken idea that the artist put his own face on the skin.
There is also a very complicated tradition about the frequent translation of his relics, which are venerated in many different places. In his book on The Glory of the Martyrs (chapter 34), St Gregory of Tours writes the following:
“Many years after his martyrdom another persecution troubled the Christians. The pagans saw that everyone rushed to the tomb of Bartholomew and regularly offered prayers and incense. Blinded by jealousy, the pagans stole his body and put it in a sarcophagus made of lead. As they threw the sarcophagus into the sea, they said, ‘No longer will you mislead our people.’ But the providence of God was at work in his mysterious benevolence. The lead sarcophagus was carried by the waves and floated from that land until it came to an island called Lipari. It was revealed to the Christians that they acquire the sarcophagus; having done so, they buried it and built a large church over it. Whenever Bartholomew is invoked in this church, it is obvious from the many miracles and blessings that he assists the people.” (Translation by Raymond Van Dam.)
A reliquary of St Bartholomew, covered with ex votos, in the cathedral of Lipari. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Effems, CC BY-SA 4.0)
This tradition is also known to the Byzantine Rite, which celebrates a feast of this translation on August 25, and sings these two hymns at Vespers:
“Thy journeys were seen in the sea, o Apostle, and made manifest beyond the understanding of men; for being cast into the sea in a casket, thou didst turn thy course to the West, as renowned martyrs followed thee from the East on either side, and rendering homage to thee at the behest of the Master of all, o Bartholomew the Apostle.
With thy wondrous ascents thou didst sanctify the water, and arrive at the island of Lipari, pouring forth myrrh, o glorious one, and healing incurable diseases, having become for the faithful in that place a savior and a refuge, an intercessor and deliverer before the King and Savior of all, a Bartholomew the Apostle.”
Part of these relics were then moved from Lipari to Benevento, and from there to a church on the Tiber Island in Rome, where they remain to this day.
The altar of the church of St Bartholomew on the Tiber Island in Rome, with a plaque on the front that says “The body of the Apostle Bartholomew.” Photo courtesy of Liturgical Arts Journal, via their Facebook page.

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