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Saint Bartholomew

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew

Giovanni Lanfranco (1582 - 1647). Galleria Corsini. Rome. Ca. 1610-1620.

The Golden Legend tells that Bartholomew went to India after the death and Resurrection of Jesus. He delivered the daughter of King Polemius there from a demon so that Bartholomew could baptise the King, his family and his people. Bartholomew drew out the demon from an idol in the temple and the demon, while being cast off, destroyed all the other idols of the temple. The priests of the temples of India, on hearing this, went to king Astyages, the brother of king Polemius to complain. They told that Bartholomew had tricked Polemius by magic. Astyages then sent a thousand men to capture Bartholomew. Bartholomew destroyed the king’s god Baldach, so the king was furious and tore his purple robe. He ordered the Apostle to be flayed alive and be beaten with clubs.

Even the Golden legend tells that there are various versions of the death of Bartholomew. He may have been crucified and died in Albana, a city of greater Armenia. He may have been beheaded. Jacobus de Voragine put it all together in the ‘Golden Legend’, giving credence to all the stories. He wrote that Bartholomew must have been crucified and before he died on the cross been taken down, flayed alive, and finally beheaded. According to legend, the Armenians put Bartholomew’s corpse in a lead coffin and tossed that into the sea. The coffin drifted and ended at the island of Ligara. Bartholomew’s relics were later transported to Beneventum and then to Rome, to the church that still bears his name.

Giovanni Lanfranco was born in Parma in 1581. It seemed he was a young page in the service of the Count Scotti in Piacenza and this count sent him to Agostino Carracci in Bologna to study painting. When Agostino Carracci died, around 1612, Lanfranco joined Annibale Carracci in Rome and he worked with him, as his assistant, in the Farnese Palace of Rome. Giovanni Lanfranco learned from Annibale Carracci to paint ceilings and that became his great speciality also later on. He acquired fame by painting the cupola of the church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle in Rome, with an Assumption of the Virgin. He then worked for the Pope, in the Pope’s Palazzo del Quirinale. From 1633 to 1646 he was in Naples, and there he painted the interior of church domes with imposing scenes, such as in the San Gennaro chapel of Naples’ cathedral. He returned to Rome and spent the rest of his life working for the pope. Urban VIII conferred even a knighthood upon him so that he must also be called Cavaliere Giovanni di Stefano. He died in Rome in 1647. Lanfranco’s life was marked by his competition with Domenichino. Lanfranco won the commission for the dome of Sant’ Andrea della Valle by scheming against Domenichino. The latter is said to have weakened the scaffold on which Lanfranco worked in the church, hoping his rival would break his neck. Domenichino was also Lanfranco’s rival in Naples.

Lanfranco’s ‘Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew’ is a relatively small canvas compared to the surfaces he worked upon during his life as a professional painter. His picture is Baroque and Caravaggesque. It may have been made in the years 1610 to 1620. We see Saint Bartholomew in agony, being flayed alive. A torturer holds the flaying knife and opens Bartholomew’s arm. Soon the man will take all the skin off Bartholomew’s body. A soldier in full armour pulls at the saint’s ropes to tighten them. Although more powerful pictures exist of this theme, such as Mattia Preti’s (1613-1699) Neapolitan picture of the martyrdom in the same Corsini Gallery, Lanfranco’s handling of the scene is not without merit.

Lanfranco showed the moment at which the flaying begins, but Bartholomew endures already such pain that he is already past the physical experience of agony. The pain is so intense and so present, now and in the picture, that Bartholomew has abandoned himself in apathy to the torture. The saint lifts his eyes to the heavens, given over to the next life, to the purely spiritual life in which one cannot sense pain. Such force of expression shown by Lanfranco in the inclination of Bartholomew’s head, Bartholomew’s pleading look to the skies and the open mouth of abandonment of all the energy of the saint, is very successful in evoking emotions of pity and admiration in the viewer. Lanfranco thus very well knew how to express the martyrdom and the feelings of the saint at the long moment of his death.

The scene is Caravaggesque. Lanfranco painted the figures very realistically. Bartholomew has not the idealistic face of a youthful or wise person. He has the wrinkles of old age and hard work and the unkempt, wild hair of the solitary and poor man, the fine and strong chest and muscles of a trained handworker, and also the torso of a common, old man. The soldier has the rough face of a seasoned guard and warrior. The man who holds the flaying knife has the strong hands of a butcher. Lanfranco painted no decoration in the background, a style element that was typical also of Caravaggio. The painter used much contrast between light and shadows, which allowed him to show Bartholomew in the centre of attention, but these shadows are softer than what one might expect from Caravaggio. Soldier and executioner look at the saint, strengthening the focus of all attention on Bartholomew. Lanfranco placed the saint somewhat to the right, so that the light areas of colour could balance the dark menace of the soldier.

Bartholomew has abandoned himself to the torture; he does not withdraw his arm violently to escape the torture but he leaves his arm to the torturer. After all, this was what God had wanted, in Bartholomew’s fate. Lanfranco thus linked in one area of light torturer and victim. The picture thus is of great emotional intensity, and since the figures are shown only in half, they are very close to the viewer so that the viewer must participate intimately in the torture scene. Still, Lanfranco painted the horror to the side, allowing the viewer also to perceive first the fineness of his art without making it compelling for the eyes of the viewer to always return to the place of pain in the picture. The lines and the colours bring the viewer always back to Bartholomew’s serene face.

By the time that Giovanni Lanfranco made the ‘Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew’, he had entirely mastered the art of painting and the style of Baroque. He had seen Caravaggio’s Roman paintings and made his the new style. All these style elements allowed him to induce strongly in his viewers the emotional power of the moment.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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