This past Friday, August 24th, is the Feast of St Bartholomew, the Apostle. I thought to commemorate this I would post a feature on the art of the Apostle, also thought to be Nathaniel, as part of the occasional series of the art of saints of the Roman Canon.
Very little is know about him. Saint Bartholomew or Nathaniel, was one of the Twelve Apostles and was from Galilee. By tradition he preached the Gospel in Arabia and Persia, and India. He also is believed to have traveled to Armenia. According to some, Saint Bartholomew ended his life by being crucified, or by being flayed alive, in Albanopolis (Urbanopolis) of Armenia.
In the Western tradition of art, he can be shown an elderly man being flayed or holding a tanner's knife and a human skin to reflect the latter of these causes of death.
In the Eastern tradition, is shown with a scroll, which indicates divine wisdom, in common with many others saints. A scroll, incidentally, is often shown in the hands of the Old Testament prophets but is also commonly seen in the hands of the Apostles. Both were given wisdom from God – the prophets through visions, the Apostles through meeting and knowing Jesus Christ. Later Saints may also be shown holding scrolls if they were also known for prophecy, percipience, and imparting divine knowledge to others. One example is Ephrem the Syrian (right), a hymnographer and deacon from the 4th century well-known for his poetic works of theology. Where the scrolls are unfurled, quotes from the Saints’ own writings are shown.
A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons describes the common elements in the traditional iconographical portrayal: “Bartholomew, also known as Nathaniel, is shown as a middle-aged man, with short beard and hair. He is also shown holding the scroll of an Apostle. After his martyrdom, St. Bartholomew has appeared to a number of people in vision and dream, so his appearance can be deduced. He has appeared to St. Joseph the Hymnographer, blessing him that he might be able to sing spiritual hymns, saying, “Let heavenly water of wisdom flow from your tongue!” He also appeared to Emperor Anastasius I (491-518) and told him that he would protect the new town of Dara.”
Finally, Rembrandt, the 17th-century Dutch artist painted St Bartholomew, in a painting that hangs in the art museum in Worcester, Massachusetts. This painting demonstrates to me why it is important to follow the guidelines of St Theodore the Studite in the 9th century. St Theodore is the saint who finally laid the iconoclastic period to rest in the East (it continued after John of Damascus and the 7th Ecumenical Council). He specified that holy images are worthy of veneration only when the name of the person and the known distinct characteristics of the person being portrayed. You can make out the knife, just, in the image. The name appears in the frame of the painting so it is worthy of veneration as well as being a beautiful painting. If these two simple additions were not there, it would just be a generic portrait and not worthy of veneration. This is because we don't know precisely what St Bartholomew looks like an so without these elements we simply wouldn't know who it is.
This is one of an occasional series of articles written to highlight the great feasts and the saints of the Roman Canon. All are connected to a single opening essay, in which I set out principles by which we might create a canon of art for Roman Rite churches, and a schema that would guide the placement of such images in a church. (Read it here.) In these, I plan to cover the key elements of images of the Saints of the Roman Canon - Eucharistic Prayer I - and the major feasts of the year. I have created the tag Canon of Art for Roman Rite to group these together, should any be interested in seeing these articles as they accumulate. For the fullest presentation of the principles of sacred art for the liturgy, take the Master’s of Sacred Arts, www.Pontifex.University.