WTF Art History

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Saintly Martyrdom

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  1. How to Skin a Saint

    Some saints have cooler martyrdom stories than others.  So far we’ve looked at Saint Lucy and Saint Peter Martyr, both of which died in gruesome ways, providing ample fodder for artists.  Today, let me introduce another saint, one of the OG apostles of Christ: Saint Bartholomew.  Take a look below at Bronzino’s painting of the saint, but be warned that it is extremely viceral.

    Agnolo Bronzino, Saint Bartholomew, 1556, oil on panel.  Galleria dell'Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, RomeAgnolo Bronzino, Saint Bartholomew, 1556, oil on panel.  Galleria dell’Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome

    The long and the short of it: Bartholomew was flayed, or skinned, alive (according to some legends, he was in Armenia when this occurred).  Many readers are likely aware of the legend that Michelangelo painted a self-portrait as the flayed skin of Saint Bartholomew in the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.  But what makes Bronzino’s painting so remarkable is his attention to anatomy, literally showing the saint in an almost completely flayed state.  A pile of skin lies beneath Bartholomew’s kneeling figure and all that remains attached to his muscles is a bit of skin on his fingers, his foot, and around his face.  While such an image would normally repulse me, I appreciate how Bronzino subtly varies the color palette of Bartholomew’s skin/muscles, thereby making the contrast less noticeable.  Finally, the obvious attribute of the knife sits on the floor, making it crystal clear how the saint was killed.

    The panel is sadly damaged near Batholomew’s face and it likely formed part of a larger altarpiece that was cut down in a later period.  Documentary evidence suggests that the original completed altar was commissioned by a Bartolomeo da Forcoli, who oversaw work done on the Pisa cathedral.  Thus, the image of Saint Bartolomew would have made a fitting reference to the patron.

    As a comparison, check out Rembrandt’s painting of the saint from a series he did of the twelve apostles.  The way in which Rembrandt painted the saint’s skin is as beautiful as it is eerie.

    Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Saint Bartholomew, 1661, oil on canvas.  The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los AngelesRembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Saint Bartholomew, 1661, oil on canvas.  The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

     
     
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