Saint Bartholomew: The Iconography

St. Bartholomew the Apostle. He preached the Gospel of Christ in India and then went to Armenia. There after converting many to the faith he was flayed by the barbarians. At the order of King Astyages he was martyred by decapitation. His holy body was translated first to the island of Lipari, then to Benevento, and finally to Rome on the Tiber, where the faithful honor him in pious veneration. – Roman Martyrology for August 24

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 legends he travels to a city in India under the control of the vicious demon Astaruth. Upon his arrival Astaruth "is held fast by chains of fire, and can no longer speak or breathe" (Martyrdom of Bartholomew, ¶2). Later, he exorcises the daughter of King Polemius and cleanses the local temple by breaking up the idols and driving away the demons that had resided in them. Enraged at this, the pagan priests complain to Polemius's brother Astarges, who captures Bartholomew and has him put to death.

NARRATIVE IMAGES

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. A painting of Ribera's 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

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 a black demon chained (Astaruth) 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. Revised 2018-04-02.

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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)

MORE IMAGES

  • 12th century: Double columns with sculptures of Saints Thomas and Bartholomew.
  • 1315-20: Stained glass panel of the flaying.
  • 1753-55: Statue in Peterskirche, Munich.
  • Circa 1753-62: Statue of St. Bartholomew above a relief picturing his martyrdom.

DATES

  • Feast day: August 24

HAGIOGRAPHY

ALSO SEE

NOTES

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.