A Most Violent Martyrdom

Who was Saint Bartholomew?

By Tom Bissell

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera. Italy, 17th century. Museo de las Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, Spain. WikiArt.

 Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera. Italy, 17th century. Museo de las Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, Spain. WikiArt.

The first five hundred years of Christianity are marked by an eruption of writings, now collectively called the Apocrypha—the word, which derives from Greek, means “hidden away”—that set out to explain what the gospels and epistles did not. While none of this work became part of the New Testament, a good deal of it intruded, in an almost viral way, into the greater body of Christianity. (Incredibly, the first raft of apocryphal Christian material was not available in any English translation until 1727, though certain popular legends inspired by the Apocrypha were widely familiar to Christians.) The stories told within the Apocrypha were irresistible to many Christians, perhaps more so due to the stories’ unofficial, unsanctioned status among church leaders. In many ways, exploring and adding to apocryphal stories was an early form of fan fiction: Tertullian writes of one unfortunate Christian presbyter who, having been identified as the author of the apocryphal Acts of Paul, was brought to trial, convicted, and stripped of his office. Without the Apocrypha, the Twelve Apostles in particular would seem even more irrecoverably distant. It is within these strange works that we find most instances of apostolic quirk or personality.

Nearly every bit of apocryphal writing has its oddities: fish resurrected from the dead, sentient dogs, gouged-out eyes miraculously healed, unusually loquacious demons, and wonderfully dislocating sentences such as “Jesus went and sat at the rudder and piloted the craft.” But the apocryphal literature involving Bartholomew is highly peculiar: one episode involves the apostle learning secret cosmic knowledge from Mary the mother of Jesus, despite her warning that to disclose this information will destroy the world; another work, attributed to Bartholomew, has Jesus battling the six serpent sons of Death; another, The Acts of Philip, in which Bartholomew co-stars, features the apostles coming across a talking baby goat and leopard, who adorably take Communion together; yet another appears to involve, of all things, a werewolf.

What might the resting place of Bartholomew resemble, given his adventures outside the literature of the New Testament? A sand castle guarded over by a chimera and gryphon? A glittering rocket ship? No. I visited the church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola in Rome. Compared with many Roman places of worship, Saint Bartholomew on the Island seemed the product of an almost pathological degree of architectural restraint. Pitched roof, simple wood mullions in its windows, plain columns. While the foundation of this church was more than one thousand years old, the building itself would not have looked terribly out of place in an otherwise humble town square in 1904 Nebraska. At the spot where the “mast” of the island’s simulated trireme had once stood was a statue of Bartholomew himself. Bearded and curly-haired, he was holding the curved flensing knife with which he was, according to legend, skinned by Armenian heathens. Other legends have Bartholomew being crucified and then skinned. Other legends have him being skinned, crucified, and then beheaded.


The day before, I’d gone to the Sistine Chapel to see another Bartholomew. In the lower right-hand corner of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, you can find a bald, muscular, nearly naked Bartholomew holding his own earthly hide while he gazes up at a beardless Jesus. The skull-less, floppy face dangling from Bartholomew’s hide is a cunning self-portrait of the artist himself. Michelangelo began work on The Last Judgment decades after he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, an undertaking he had to be coaxed into accepting. During both Sistine projects, the conditions under which Michelangelo labored were horrid. He constructed his own scaffolds because he suspected the first scaffold built for his use had been designed to kill him. Some of this perceived abuse must have moved Michelangelo to powerfully identify with Bartholomew, whose gruesome traditions mark him as the most hideously tormented of all the apostles.

An ancient legend preserved by Jacobus de Voragine mentions Bartholomew’s remains being held in Mesopotamia as of the sixth century. Another of Jacobus’s legends describes how, after Bartholomew’s flaying, the “pagans” in Armenia, “profoundly” displeased by the miracles that attended Bartholomew’s body, put the bones into “a leaden coffin” and threw it into the sea. By “God’s will” Bartholomew’s storm-tossed remains reached the island of Lipari, near Sicily. This would have required God’s will, or at least a flatbed semi, seeing that the Caspian Sea, from whose shores the Armenians supposedly pushed Bartholomew’s coffin, has no connection to the Mediterranean. When Bartholomew’s body reached Lipari, a local volcano, “which did harm to those who lived nearby,” drew back in reverence at “a distance of a mile or more.”

In the early ninth century, Saracens invaded Sicily, sacked Lipari, and supposedly looted Bartholomew’s tomb. In a legend known to Jacobus, Bartholomew appears to a surviving monk and demands that his scattered bones be collected. The monk angrily asks why he should do anything at all for Bartholomew, “since you allowed us to be overrun and did nothing to help us.” Bartholomew explains that he attempted to protect the people of Lipari, but their sins had grown so brazen he “could no longer obtain pardon for them.” Duly chastised by this questionable theodicy, the monk wonders how he can ever hope to find Bartholomew’s bones amid the greater carnage. Bartholomew promises that if the monk looks for them at night, he will find bones “that shine like fire” among the less blessed ribs and scapulae. The monk does as Bartholomew asks and puts the bones on a ship bound for Benevento, a town in southeastern Italy.

The greater portion of Bartholomew’s remains did not long stay in Benevento, for in the tenth century Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor, requested the bones be sent to Rome, apparently for safekeeping. Eventually, they found their way into Adalbert’s church. The bishop of Benevento seems to have kept some of Bartholomew’s body, for in the eleventh century he raffled Bartholomew’s arm to England’s Edward the Confessor, who, in turn, handed it over to Canterbury Cathedral. (This accounts for the apostle’s unusually strong veneration in England, where many dozens of churches, and one of its best hospitals, are devoted to him.) None of this bone trade is particularly unusual, and almost all of the apostles exist in fragments, sometimes even in churches devoted to them, where different body parts are scattered around church grounds. Still, the fact that the skinned, tortured Bartholomew of tradition was so frequently dismembered after his death says something about the lucklessness with which he has been perceived through Christian time. Given his gruesome fate, it is probably fitting that today Bartholomew is largely known for his feast day’s connection to a bloody Paris night in 1572, when thousands of Protestant French Huguenots were dragged from their beds and slaughtered in the street by French Catholics, which is known as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

Saint Bartholomew, ca. 1410, Austria. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters Collection, 1930.

At some point in the third or fourth century, a myth emerged among Christians that Bartholomew had traveled to India in the first century and evangelized its people. Ambrose, the fearsome fourth-century bishop of Milan, wrote of “the winged feet” with which Bartholomew reached the fabled land. Eusebius knew of the same legend, which involved the Christian scholar Pantaenus, who was supposedly the first known head of a Christian academy in Alexandria. According to Eusebius, Pantaenus “found that Matthew’s gospel had arrived [in India] before him and was in the hands of some there who had come to know Christ. Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them and had left behind Matthew’s account in the actual Hebrew characters.”

The tradition that Bartholomew traveled to India is an old one, at least among Western Christians. In The Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voragine collated several such legends, describing both Bartholomew’s mission to and supposed death in India. One Jacobus source provides the most elaborate physical description of an apostle found in ancient Christian writings:

He has black, curly hair, white skin, large eyes, straight nose, his hair covers his ears, his beard long and grizzled, middle height. He wears a white robe with a purple stripe, and a white cloak with four purple gems at the corners. For twenty-six years he has worn these, and they never grow old. His shoes have lasted twenty-six years. He prays a hundred times a day and a hundred times a night. His voice is like a trumpet; angels wait upon him; he is always cheerful, and knows all languages.

Although this is clearly a description of a lunatic, Bartholomew’s evocation here would guide many later physical representations of him.

Some scholars view the legends of Bartholomew’s travels in India as a result of a geographical misunderstanding common in ancient times. In this view, “India” was used as shorthand for any distant place, much as “Timbuktu” is used today. Other scholars point out that India was not necessarily so fantastical a clime for early Christians to imagine. Alexander the Great traveled through India as early as the fourth century BC, as any educated writer at the time would have known, and in The Jewish War one of Josephus’s fanatical Zealot leaders says, “If we do need the testimony of foreigners, let us look to those Indians who profess to practice philosophy.”

The land to which Bartholomew has been most frequently linked is Armenia, the first nation to make Christianity its official creed, though, once again, the evidence of his travels there is obviously legendary. According to one fancifully exact account, Thaddaeus preached in Armenia for twenty-three years and was joined by Bartholomew around 60. Bartholomew was martyred, according to this traditional chronology, around 68, a few years after Peter and Paul.

It may be that the early Armenian Church claimed its apostolic connection to Bartholomew for purely tactical reasons, which was a common gambit for many communities whose beliefs ran counter to a hardening Christian orthodoxy. In the case of the Armenian Church, those beliefs concerned what is now called Monophysite Christianity, which holds that Jesus’s humanity and divinity were not separate but united in one cohesive nature. The Western church, which regarded Jesus’s humanity and divinity as entirely separate, rejected Monophysite beliefs as anathema, even though its thinkers took their own sweet time in discerning the precise nature of the internal coexistence of Jesus’s humanity and divinity. Monophysitism became the official stance of Armenian Christianity in the middle of the fifth century, after the Council of Chalcedon, which granted equal stature to Jesus’s human and divine selves. Religious historians, however, would be well advised to thank their lucky stars for the Armenian Church, which translated and preserved an impressive amount of early theological work, written by the giants of first- and second-century Christianity and later destroyed by the forces of orthodoxy. Several of these texts today survive only in Armenian.


A large painting depicting Bartholomew’s martyrdom was in the church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola. It was a nasty piece of work, showing the apostle, tied to a tree, being circled by fearsomely mustached, knife-wielding, dark-skinned men in turbans. Amazingly, this was not even the most offensive image I had seen of Bartholomew’s martyrdom. The most offensive image I had seen was painted by Nicolò Circignani—a sixteenth-century analogue to the torture-horror filmmaker Eli Roth—which is found in Rome’s Chiesa dei Santi Nereo e Achilleo. The image depicted pagans in the bloodily nightmarish middle stages of tearing off Bartholomew’s skin, with one pagan bracing himself against a tree for better pulling leverage. Circignani’s work savored the spectacle of bloody apostolic martyrdom, and I was hardly the only one troubled by it. On a visit to Rome, Charles Dickens was so disgusted by Circignani’s visions of apostolic murder he could hardly stand to look at them.

With Christianity triumphant, and Christians able to worship freely in Rome for many centuries, why this fixation on martyrdom? Had this fixation not done enough damage to the faith already? Why continue to roll in the entrails of the martyred?

Several early Christians attempted to warn their fellow believers about valorizing martyrdom. Early Christianity’s greatest theologian, Origen, whose father was a martyr, was ambivalent, concerned that consciously seeking out death from oppressors was a form of suicide. Clement of Alexandria disliked martyrdom, because it required another man to sin. Slowly, and then definitively, these views lost out. Consider a letter written by the disciples of the famously martyred early Christian leader Polycarp, which was written in the first half of the second century. This letter—the first recorded description of Christian martyrdom—proclaims their martyred leader’s bones to be “more precious than stones of great price, more splendid than gold.” Or consider Ignatius, who wrote the following to the Christians of Rome in the early second century while on his own way to martyrdom: “Let me be food for the wild beasts, through whom I can reach God.” The only Christian who would dare come between him and death, Ignatius wrote, was one who “hated” him. Or consider Tertullian, writing around the turn of the third century: “Does God covet man’s blood?…I might venture to affirm that he does.” Tertullian went on to refer to martyrdom as “a second new birth” and, sounding more than a little Islamist, cautioned the pagan magistrates of Carthage that the “oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”

Those who die for their faith will always be admired by their co-religionists. But in a culture in which faith is normative rather than embattled, fascination with those who die for their faith quickly loses its devotional aspects. As far back as the second century, Marcus Aurelius made this point in his Meditations, criticizing Christians for their “obstinacy,” the undignified and “tragic show” they put on, in their lust for martyrdom. While some Christians were martyred for their faith, and even thrown to lions, the earliest Christian accounts of martyrdom fail to make clear one interesting wrinkle: killing men and women for perceived apostasy was highly uncommon among pagans, and most ancient-world authorities were inclined to be lenient toward Christians, many of whom, like Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, demanded death. Martyrdom, then, is a difference-obliterating mind-set that leaves death as the only thing to venerate.


Adapted from Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve by Tom Bissell. Copyright © 2016 by Thomas Carlisle Bissell. Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.