The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (Jusepe de Ribera,  1634, oil on canvas)

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (Jusepe de Ribera, 1634, oil on canvas)

Saint Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Christ… Yet, considering the exalted company he kept, we do not know very much about Bartholomew.  Bartholomew means “son of the furrows” in Aramaic, which suggests he was possiblya ploughman…or at least descended from farmers (it is also funny to think that Bart Simpson’s name is originally Aramaic).  Bartholomew shows up by name in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the “Synoptic” gospels, which give roughly the same account of events) but he is replaced by Nathaniel in the enigmaticand iconoclastic gospel of John.

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Whatever the case, sources (such as they are) place Bartholomew at the Ascension–the Greek-myth style apotheosis of Christ, when the risen savior ascended bodily into heaven to assimilate with the divine.  Bartholomew’s story gets a lot more interesting thereafter.  While other apostles went west and north to spread Christianity to the Roman Empire, Bartholomew headed East, right out of the boundaries of the known world. Along with Saint Thomas, he is credited with bringing Christianity to India.  Along the way he is alleged (by varying sources) to have stopped to spread the faith in Mesopotamia, Parthia, and Lycaonia.

Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (Stefan Lochner, 1435)

Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (Stefan Lochner, 1435)

However Bartholomew is most affiliated with Armenian Christianity.  Along with his fellow apostle, Saint Jude, he is credited with bringing the faith to Armenia in the 1st Century and the two are the Co-founders of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenia was also the site of his thrilling martyrdom.  According to popular tradition,Bartholomew converted Polymius, the king of Armenia, to Christianity. This infuritated the king’s brother Astyages, a devout pagan who thought that getting rid of the proslytizer would get rid of the faith.  Astyages had Bartholomew seized, crucified and flayed alive–which seems like overkill.  In some accounts the holy man was drowned or beheaded (maybe Astyages feared a Rasputin type situation and had Bartholomew crucified, flayed, drowned, and beheaded).  Armenia is not necessarily the center of the world in contemporary times, but it was a thriving society in the early medieval world.  There were huge cities filled with great cathedrals to Saint Bartholomew   Whatever the case of the real Bartholomew, popular imagination seized on the flaying aspect of this tale.  This death of Saint Bartholomew became favorite theme of artists  Michaelangelo even painted himself as Saint Bartholomew’s nightmarish skin in the last judgement.  There he is between heaven and hell in the saint’s flayed hand.  Will he be cast down and discarded of ascend as a saint?

Detail from "The Last Judgment" (Michelangelo Buonarotti, ca. 1535-1541, fresco)

Detail from “The Last Judgment” (Michelangelo Buonarotti, ca. 1535-1541, fresco)

Some scolars have noted a deliberate similarity between Bartholomew and the Greco-Roman demigod Hercules. Churches to the saint were often located on former sites of cult centers to the strongman. Additionally the two shared iconongraphy: Bartholomew frequently holds of wears his skin like Hercules wears the Nemean lion’s skin. There are even certainly weird parallels between the figures. Hercules transcended death through physical strength: excellence at fighting and a divine pedigree allowed him to rise to heaven.  Saint Bartholomew a normal man–a farmer–transcended mortality by spiritual strength–he shrugged off the most terrible death possible and joined Jesus in heaven (and in working miracles here on Earth).  Barthomew and Hercules even shared a doom caused throught the skin.  Barthomew was flayed, while Hercules was poisoned intracutaneously and ripped his own skin off.  It is a good theory, but it overlooks the even more straightforward Christian message of Bartholomew. He transcended his mortality through his association with Jesus. He shrugged off his human flesh and became part of the divine.  The raw power of the tale is instantly recognizable in the beautiful & horrible art.

Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (unknown artist, 17th century, oil on canvas)

Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (unknown artist, 17th century, oil on canvas)