Saint Bartholomew (Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:14, Acts 1:13) never set foot in Milan but his statue has been the talk of the town for the past four and a half centuries. Just ask Mark Twain. Then again, the tradition of Bartholomew, which purports that he was skinned alive and beheaded in Albanopolis, Armenia (modern-day Turkey), is the stuff of legends. Bartholomew, now the patron saint of tanners, is usually depicted with a large knife and holding his own skin.
St Bartholomew Flayed (1562), a gruesomely realistic statue of the apostle, adorns the south transept of the Milan Duomo. The sculptured figure of the stoic but skinless young man is the best known work by Marco d’Agrate (c.1504 – c.1574), who was so assured of the morbid brilliance of his work that he signed it with the carved inscription: ‘I was not made by Praxiteles but by Marco d’Agrate’.
Mark Twain simply found the statue repulsive. During a guided tour of the Milan Duomo on his 1867 journey to the Holy Land, the American writer was introduced to the ‘coffee-colored piece of sculpture . . . of such faultless accuracy’ which is ‘still seen today by the daily throng of tourists’.
Twain writes: ‘The figure was that of a man without a skin; with every vein, artery, muscle, every fiber and tendon and tissue of the human frame represented in minute detail. It looked natural, because somehow it looked as if it were in pain. A skinned man would be likely to look that way unless his attention was occupied with some other matter.
‘It was a hideous thing, and yet there was a fascination about it somehow. I am very sorry I saw it, because I shall always see it now. I shall dream of it sometimes. I shall dream that it is resting its corded arms on the bed’s head and looking down on me with its dead eyes; I shall dream that it is stretched between the sheets with me and touching me with its exposed muscles and its stringy cold legs. It is hard to forget repulsive things’ (Twain, Innocents Abroad, Chapter 18).
The statue of Bartholomew, whose feast day is August 24, remains an unforgettable attraction of the Milan Duomo.
Bartholomew is often identified as the same person whom John the Evangelist names as Nathanael (John 1:45-49, John 21:2).
According to Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339), Bartholomew went on a missionary tour of India, taking with him the writings of Matthew (Ecclesiastical History, 5.10). Images of St Bartholomew, including St Bartholomew Flayed, often depict the apostle holding a copy of Matthew’s gospel.
Despite the words of Eusebius, the strongest tradition links Bartholomew with Armenia, where he and his fellow apostle Jude are credited with bringing Christianity to the country and are recognized as the patron saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Saint Bartholomew Monastery, now in ruins, was built on the traditional site of Bartholomew’s martyrdom.
The relics of the saint have also been historically linked with the Saint Bartholomew-on-the-Tiber Church (Rome), the Canterbury Cathedral (England), the Frankfurt Cathedral (Germany) and the Cathedral of St Bartholomew (Lipari, Italy).
Michelango (d. 1564) included an image of Bartholomew in his famous fresco, Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican.
A modern sculpture of St Bartholomew, Damien Hirst’s Exquisite Pain (2006), is on display at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, England.