Saint Bartholomew: The Iconography
In the New Testament Bartholomew appears only in the lists of apostles at Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:17-19, Luke 6:13-16, and Acts 1:13. In the Golden Legend he travels to India, where he binds in chains of fire a black demon who has been troubling a local king. The king then converts, so the pagan priests complain to his brother, who captures Bartholomew and has him put to death.


Many sources say that St. Bartholomew died by flaying and this is what we see in the second picture at right and in most images of his martyrdom. 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.

Other sources say that the saint was beheaded, or that he was crucified.1 Some later images combine crucifixion with flaying by picturing the horizontal bar as a tree shaped like a cross (example). Or an artist can follow the suggestion in the Golden Legend and have the saint flayed and then crucified or beheaded (or both). 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.


Portraits usually show St. Bartholomew with a book and flaying knife, as in the first picture at right and in this stained glass. Sometimes he is instead portrayed skinless (example) or standing with his book in hand and the black demon chained at his feet (example). Orthodox images normally use a scroll rather than a book (example).

The Golden Legend 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, in the 13th century.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University


Bartolomeo Bulgarini. St. Bartholomew, 14th century (See description page)

The flaying of St. Bartholomew (See description page)

St. Bartholomew in a detail from a fresco of six apostles at St. Paul Outside the Walls, possibly 11th or 12th century (See description page)




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