Pasquale Chiesa (attrib.), The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew

The composition is particularly brilliant: the painter skilfully builds on a construction based on a cross with two eloquent diagonals, the one formed by the left side of the saint, with his leg flayed and his arm raised by one of the executioners, and the one formed by the right arm of the apostle and that of the man elegantly draped in blue, who might be identified as King Astyages. The scene thus appears visually to be as much a crucifixion as a flaying, bringing together several hagiographic traditions in one image. Chiesa focuses the viewer’s gaze on the scene and on what lies at the heart of the work and therefore of the story: the dialogue between the apostle, whose torture has already begun, and God. Bartholomew cannot see the angels who are preparing to welcome him, but he nevertheless looks up to heaven. For this man “in whom is no guile” (John 1:47) is, even at the point of death, one who refuses to sacrifice to the idols at which King Astyage seems to point. These are not visible and the saint is entirely turned towards welcoming the heavenly life that is promised to those who believe in God; his open left hand being a sign of this. With its constructive rigour in which each figure is perfectly set in pose, the composition is undoubtedly one of the most powerful in the large corpus of depictions of Bartholomew’s martyrdom. It is also one of the most accomplished in the work of the young Chiesa.

The life of the apostle Bartholomew, “son of Talmay”, is little known. He is mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 10:2-3; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:13-16) and in the Apocalypse (Acts 1:13) as one of the twelve apostles of Christ, and is often identified with Nathanael – a native of Cana – whom St John describes in his Gospel as a man with a pure heart, whom Christ welcomes by exclaiming: “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” (John 1:47). Famous for his role in the evangelisation of Arabia, Mesopotamia, perhaps India and especially Armenia, he is said to have died at Artaxata. The details of his death – probably with four companions and resulting from the resurrection of King Astyages’ son and the exorcism of his daughter – are difficult to know, as the sources are contradictory. However, it is most often the flaying alive that is depicted by tradition and that inspires the finest artistic creations.

Palazzo Vendramin Grimani, 2022