Saint Bartholomew, Apostle: The Iconography

The Golden Legend says that St. Bartholomew traveled to India, where he bound in chains of fire a black demon who had troubled a local king, who then converted.  The pagan priests complained to the king's brother, who captured Bartholomew and had him put to death.

Narrative images

According to the Legend the manner of Bartholomew's death is unclear. Most sources say that he was flayed, some that he was beheaded, others crucified.1 So the artist (or his patron) has to choose among the various versions. Flaying seems to be the default preference. Ribera's painting in the Prado has the executioners prepare for the flaying by hoisting up a horizontal bar to which the saint's hands are tied. A possibly contemporaneous painting in Burgos Cathedral shows the next step: Bartholomew hangs from the crossbar while a man starts flaying his left arm.

A number of images from the 17th through at least the 19th century resolve the flaying/crucifixion question by picturing the horizontal bar as a tree shaped like a cross (example). Or an artist can have the saint flayed and then
crucified or beheaded (or both). The Legend, in fact, suggests this as a possible resolution of the difficulty. One French illumination from the 14th century, for example, uses two side-by-side panels the flaying on the left and the beheading (of the flayed saint) on the right.

Portrait images

Portraits usually show St. Bartholomew with a book and flaying knife, as at left and in this example.  Sometimes he is instead portrayed skinless (example) or standing with his book in hand and the black demon chained at his feet (example).

The Golden Legend (13th-century) describes St. Bartholomew as having black curly hair, large eyes, fair skin, and a long beard starting to gray. Of these features the only one followed consistently in the images is the curly hair, and that only in Western images after the Legend was published.

Feast day: August 24

At left, stained glass from 1410

Other images:
14th century relief
Statue in the Lateran Basilica
11th or 12th century ivory
Also see:
Apostles (as a group)
Golden Legend #123: html or pdf
Acts of Bartholomew, ca. 500 (cached)
Early South English Legendary 366-76



1Acta Sanctorum August vol. 5 pp. 7-108. For a discussion of the various accounts of the saint's death, see especially pages 27-30.