Collecting the lives of the saints, the mediaeval book ›Legenda aurea‹, compiled by the Dominican scholar Jacobus de Voragine (1230-1298), gives a detailed account of St. Bartholomew's life. This ›Golden Legend‹ was even more popular during the Middle Ages than the Bible itself. Its novella-like narratives or Vitae, rich in detail and imagination, have become central to western art. The ›Legenda aurea‹, in any case, tells us the story of a preacher who raved against the adoration of heathen deities or their graven images. It also tells us the story of Bartholomew, healing the daughter of a heathen king by dispelling evil spirits. Another story entails the nefarious command given by local elites, ordering him to be flayed and skinned alive. But this is not the only story regarding his martyrdom. For even though the punishment of skinning a human being was predominately used in ancient Persia, it was not the only narrative about his martyrdom: other sources speak of a crucifixion with his head pointing downwards (like St. Peter's), about him being dumped and drowned in the ocean, some speak of a beheading.
As soon as we compare the sources critically, a wide field of contradictions opens up, which is, of course, quite common in Christian hagiography or for that matter in any type of tradition carried over large periods of time by a forever shifting and transforming culture. The Western canon is a motley phantasmagoria of lore, law, lilts, and lullabies laboriously passed on by letter, lip, and rite in a constantly fluctuating pageant.
The history of piety and adoring the apostle Bartholomew in Frankfurt am Main begins at least when the relic, a calotte-like fragment of a human skull (12 cm by 7 cm), is transferred to the city. In 1215, a seal was attached to a deed concerning the local collegiate chapter that shows the saint. Some historians even believe the relic had been already brought from S. Bartolomeo on the Tiber Island in Rome to Frankfurt am Main in the mid-12th century. In order to adequately present this precious relic, various reliquaries have been commissioned.
...of a crucifixion with his head pointing downwards (like St. Peter's), about him being dumped and drowned in the ocean
I'd like to briefly discuss two of them. Franz Ignaz Berdold, a goldsmith from Augsburg, created a reliquary bust in his workshop that is dated circa 1727. In a frontal perspective, we are presented with the ascetic head of a bearded man with head hair hanging down onto his shoulders in gentle curls. His neck and chest are of muscular complexion and have been shaped with great plasticity. His figure is accompanied by some sort of cloth that is draped over his shoulders and gives the bottom of the bust calm, cohesive contours. It is a so-called ›speaking reliquary‹, as its form hints at that which is stored within it. Berdold's baroque bust dramatizes the beauty of the human body and thus creates a climactic tension between the beauty of created things and the vile cruelty inflicted upon it by heathen henchmen. Especially, by the way, the drapery is reminiscent of the heroes, demigods, and gods of the classical period.
The second reliquary, I'd like to discuss at this point, was created in 1929 by the Frankfurt-based goldsmith Karl Borromäus Berthold and was made using gilded silver and various gemstones. The object should be viewed in the context of the arts and crafts movement that started with the Jugendstil movement. The reliquary rises from its tiered base, upon which a triangular shrine is placed. The general form, of course, is heavily indebted to Expressionism and bears remnants of a late neo-Gothic style. Three column-like berg-crystals are mounted to the steps on each side leading up to the gable of the triangular capsule, above which a polished Cross is towering, also made of diaphanous berg-crystal. The entire shrine is unified by the mandorla (or almond shaped) aureole, arching over the reliquary. Around the base we read on the frieze: »SANCTE + BARTOLOMAEE / PATRONE + ET / PROTECTOR + NOSTER / ORA PRO NOBIS«. I think it is quite apparent that both reliquaries are centralizing the holiness of the martyr, not his suffering.
The overwhelming majority of the 33 depictions of St. Bartholomew, scattered throughout the building, follow the rationale just mentioned. The great monstrance with its spiry architectural form (ca. 1498) shows a little silver figure of the apostle, holding a knife in the right hand. The little figure, clearly depicted with a halo, is exalted beyond its temporal suffering and is holding a book in his left hand. Another object, a clasp or pectorale, designed to hold liturgical vestments in place, shows the saint with his skin draped over his slightly bent arm.
Let us examine this form a bit closer: St. Bartholomew with his skin draped over his arm, boasting the knife that was the instrument of his suffering. It is repeated often throughout the cathedral – for instance in the oak carving on the choir stalls (ca. 1352), or in the colorful sandstone sculpture mounted on the northern wall of the choir (ca. 1440), or on the plate of the capstone that concludes one of the western vaults in the Wahlkapelle (Election Chapel, ca. 1425-1438). In addition, we find this triumphant form of St. Bartholomew, the saint who never seemed to be harmed by martyrdom, on various altars along the transept: the relief figure on the left wing of the Sacred Heart Altar (Memmingen, ca. 1505), for instance, or the sculpture in the crowning woodwork above the Altar of Our Lady (Swabia, ca. 1500).
But it is the famous St. Bartholomew frieze that covers most of the southern and northern walls of the choir which gives a most glorified account of the martyr's fate and triumph. The style and mode of narrative adopted in the 28 large-scale scenes of the frieze celebrates his holiness and mediaeval Christianity's later perception of having attained ultimate victory over heathendom. The frieze follows the ›Legenda aurea‹, as is apparent in dressing St. Bartholomew in a white robe. The secco painting with tempera was commissioned in early 15th century on the account of a donation made to the chapter. It offers a narrative that begins with St. Bartholomew being sent out to the spread the gospel along with the other apostles and ends with a heathen prince being made bishop, after he converted to Christianity. The frieze is essentially about the origin of the Church. It also, one might add, already presupposes the concept of discipleship, too, which is perhaps an unwarranted, even hasty claim, as we shall see. It looks like most of these prominent depictions are much more concerned with the Church than with Christ. One might argue at this point, »Of course these depictions are predominantly concerned with the Church, but not because they are ignorant of Christ, but because they are Catholic «. I think arguing like this would be cynical.
Take, for instance, Oswald Ongher's oil painting ›Agony of St. Bartholomew‹ (ca. 1670) that is mounted on the western wall of the northern aisle. In the middle of the picture we see Bartholomew leaning against a tree, merely dressed in a waistcloth. He is exhausted. One of the three henchmen surrounding him has evidently tied him to that tree. Holding a knife in his mouth, we see another henchman to the right. He is just pulling off Bartholomew's skin. He has already done so on both arms. We see the maltreated muscle parts, the blood trickling down from his armpit. In front of that group, we see another figure in the foreground adorned with feathers, a sign of his heathen nature. He is running his blade across the sharpening steel. In the right corner, in the background of the picture, we see Astyages, the brother to the heathen king, decorated with laurels watching with his soldiers. The paining, the only surviving fragment of a Baroque altar destroyed in aerial bombardments during World War II, contrasts Bartholomew enduring his agony with the sardonic cruelty, glee, and cynicism of the three underlings of Astyages (himself only brother of a king) tormenting the unknowing, unassuming, patiently enduring man of whom we will realize that he was a saint.
This is the vision that Aris Kalaizis will carry forth and develop in his interpretation of Bartholomew's martyrdom. While Bartholomew is often found in religious art standing, his skin draped over his arm, it is necessary to realize the ex post facto depictions, showing the saint in his sainthood, is somewhat anticlimactic. Ongher and Kalaizis point at another tradition of looking at saintly faith: a painful mode of faith, a faith that has retrained a sense of the forlorn tragedy that is the actual horizon of suffering. Consider, for instance, the painting of St. Bartholomew (1617) by the Baroque painter Jusepe de Ribera. The picture today is on display at the Prado in Madrid. Bartholomew is suspended from a hanging wooden beam like a sail, while the henchmen are getting ready to inflict their agony upon him. Also, consider the medieval Weltgerichtsaltar (Judgment Day Altar) at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum by Stefan Lochner.
...no trace of good news
Nowhere a sign of grace. No trace of good news. There are no acts of charity: nobody walks again, sees again. Nobody is being fed. Nobody is being found or saved or restored to life. No one is walking across waters. The kingdom, lost. The heavens, empty. And if we take to heart what is actually happening in this scene here, if we look at what human beings are inflicting upon their fellow creature, then there really isn’t any credible evidence for glad tidings of joy. Nothing in this scene seems to corroborate the gospel's message of hope.
Of course, it is bewildering to look at this painting without activating the cultural information stored in the back of our brains. Because the evangelists assure us: his name was Bartholomew. He was an apostle, one of the Twelve. Lore tells us: he was in India or Persia or Armenia – where he met Death. But we should be cautious, for Aris Kalaizis isn’t going to do us a favor. We cannot step in front of this painting pleased with all our enlightened knowledge, ready to relish an aesthetic bonbon. We cannot come, as though naïve, as though guileless, as though innocent, respectable, knowing—as though unblemished. This is not a painting that bathes us in sunlight: it is not a painting that will mirror our sophistication.
This is ground zero. He failed. He died. Church tradition, which is always so quick with its armory of terminology, rashly calls his fate martyrdom. Martyrdom, as though there were no question about it. Martyrdom—a mere lexical item, a term, a word. But what's a word after all? We need to be very clear: here we have got a missionary—a believer—shown in the moment of his total failure. He is shipwrecked. Whatever his intentions, they are burning and crashing. Whatever he wished to bring to these witless heathens, it only had a slim chance anyway, it was hanging by a thread, and the henchmen are putting their knife's blade to that thread. Now, they are cutting through, severing it. It's over.
And doesn’t this version of the story or this emphasis, doesn’t it unmask those triumphant depictions, I discussed above, those depictions … so handsomely strewn about in the dainty blissful dominion of Frankfurt's principal Cathedral? Doesn’t this triumphant pose suddenly seem a bit complacent? We have it made. We're saved. Doesn’t this depiction of martyrdom seem like an impotent, stubborn stance against an ignorant, violent, ultimately adverse world? So what does it mean to »own« a relic of a saint, anyway? Or, for that matter, what does it mean to possess the story of a saint's life? Or to »decorate« our hallowed walls with a painting or a sculpture of a saint? Is the relic the ultimate gimmick, the proof that it is all true: a fragment of a man's skull? Does it testify to everything? That it all went well in the end. That it's all good. That we may rest assured. That we may be blissful. That we may believe. Amen?
...will happen upon some token of hope
There is something amiss. For when we read in the Life of St. Bartholomew carefully, we encounter something strange in the ›Legenda aurea‹. At one point, it says: »There is no consensus of opinion with respect to the way in which Saint Bartholomew was martyred«.
Aris Kalaizis will not flatter the Church with another glorious depiction of one of her martyrs. When we turn to his earlier paintings, we will search in vain for a redeemed world. On the contrary, we will see broken down walls, exploited landscapes, or abandoned buildings canvas after canvas. We will witness disturbing scenes of destruction, desolate, utterly broken situations.
Here or there, perhaps, we will happen upon some token of hope, as in the colors coming through the dark tumorous clouds making up the horizon shown in this painting. Nevertheless, hope in his paintings is bitter. It isn’t some sort of romantic, kitschy, kowtowing hope handed out by those in the know. Instead, it is hope that is hard to bear. Because maybe what you are seeing on the horizon isn’t a rosy-fingered dawn, but the last flashes of light in the offing before the night.
Double-binds: erroneous messages in the face of truth, true messages in the face of error. Uncertainty. Bitterness. Hope that is hard to bear, despite the knife in your flesh. Affirmation even at ground zero, in the face of absolute nothingness and failure, suffering in the face of and because of that God who loves you. Zero consolation. None. Nowhere. So, actually it is perverse.
...this painting is presented in the Imperial Cathedral in Frankfurt, only about 200 meters away from the Römerberg where the Nazis burned books in 1933
Mark carefully: what we are looking at, is sheer perversity. We are taking the stable ground away from our tradition, and we are replacing it with a double bottom. It is an unbelievably perverse, impertinent vision of hope. This is its eminent greatness. Its bamboozling realism. I will come back to this point at the end of this essay. The greatness in the vision of Aris Kalaizis is this: he has understood that the world is forever unfinished.
The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew: faith as uncertitude. Remember, the ›Legenda aurea‹ at one point says: »There is no consensus of opinion with respect to the way in which Saint Bartholomew was martyred«. This painting offers us various interpretations also found in the various accounts that relate the Life of St. Bartholomew, the Vitae. Crucified head down. Skinned. Beaten.
But perhaps losing his life isn’t the most terrible aspect of his agony. Isn’t burning the book and the news that it entails far more terrible, unbearable indeed, than dying? Holocaust, burnt whole. This painting is presented in the Imperial Cathedral in Frankfurt, only about 200 meters away from the Römerberg where the Nazis burned books in 1933.
Or: take a look at the ruined church in the middle of the picture. The ruined edifice does indeed exist, on the outskirts of Leipzig, in a village named Wachau. The church in Wachau was ruined during the bombardment of Leipzig in World War II and later neglected by the communist regime. The architect of the ecclesiastical structure was Constantin Lipsius, a famous Saxon architect of the late 19th century. Lipsius, however, did not only build churches, but also the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig, which is now the prestigious Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst.