St. Profile: Bartholomew the Apostle

St. Bartholomew, looking up instructions for "live flaying."

St. Bartholomew, looking up instructions for "live flaying."

This is a belated post to celebrate the Feast of St. Bartholomew (Aug. 24). Saints are normally pretty zany characters, but Bartholomew is on the more conventional side. Except for the bit where he carries his own skin around. Everyone’s got to have something.

LIFE & TIMES

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Bartholomew is one of the O.G. apostles, but you might not know it. Here’s what he looked like, as described by a demon (more on that later):

He has black hair, a shaggy head, a fair skin, large eyes, beautiful nostrils, his ears hidden by the hair of his head, with a yellow beard, [and] a few grey hairs...

Artist's rendering.

Artist's rendering.

Bartholomew is the kind of apostle who tends to appear in lists. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke) and in the Acts of the Apostles, he gets no solo mention -- he’s really just there to beef up the Twelve.

Bartholomew gets a little more backstory in the Gospel of John, where he’s not actually Bartholomew at all. Instead, John introduces him as Nathanael, a friend of the apostle Philip. Unlike the silent Bartholomew (who is nothing if not meek), the Biblical Nathanael is evidently a salty bastard:

Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.

And Nathanael said unto him, “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

(John 1:45-6)

Nathanael/Bartholomew carries this spirit forward into the apocryphal gospel attributed to his name, The Questions of Bartholomew.

Surprisingly, one of them is not “Why is Nazareth such a festering shithole?” Rather, Questions is of a genre of apocryphal texts that it is perhaps surprising did not make it into the accepted bible: question and answer sessions between Jesus and his disciples conducted after the mindfuck that was the crucifixion of God.

We can't all be peeled, Bartholomew.

We can't all be peeled, Bartholomew.

Bartholomew gets the deets on how Jesus “puts off [his] flesh” and a nice play-by-play of his descent into Hell. Then he berates the mother of God about how she managed to give birth to a limitless and unimaginable deity (a lot of praying and trembling). By the end of the dialogue, he even manages to chat with Satan in what amounts to a bizarre, mystical, first millennium prequel to the Screwtape Letters.

Perhaps making up for his earlier sarcasm, this Bartholomew seems earnest in his curiosity, if a little too interested in the devilish mastery that proves Jesus’ divine power to make it into the Approved Edition.

SKIN & BONES

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In his missionary work, too, Bartholomew kept a low profile. It wasn’t until a couple centuries after his death that someone noticed he had spent some time preaching in India, where the Apostle Thomas gets all the credit for converting the natives. He also spent some time following his buddy Phillip around Syria, and according to one account narrowly escaped crucifixion.

Bartholomew, it is generally agreed, then went on to Armenia, where he again followed in the footsteps of a more famous Apostle, Thaddeus. Thaddeus, it should be mentioned, was dead, already been martyred by the Armenian king -- so when Bartholomew arrived to exorcise the king’s neice of a pagan demon (who so eloquently described his appearance above), he really should have known better.

Having carried out his part of the bargain and returned the demon to its idol, the king took issue with the ensuing destruction of pagan statues and had Bartholomew beheaded or, in the more gruesome version of the tale, flayed alive.

Thence began his celebrity.

Like many saints, St. Bartholomew only became cool in light of the excessive violence of his death. In iconography, he is perhaps most famous for his depiction in Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, where he is shown holding a full suit of his skin. But that’s not the only artful depiction of the man donning his former flesh as a fashion item.

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In the 6th century, a large piece of Bartholomew’s skin (ick) washed up on the tiny Italian island of Lipari in what was apparently a not-at-all-horrifying miracle, and presently began to spew healing myrrh on the locals.

In the intervening centuries, his relics have been associated with some pretty lame miracles, mostly involving parlour game-like tricks involving weight. In one instance, Bartholomew took a definitive stand against fascism when the Italian military sought to melt down his silver statue in Lipari -- on weighing it, however, they found it weighed only a few grams.

Strangely, England can also claim a special connection to the oriental saint -- Westminster Abbey is home to an arm of Bartholomew, gifted to Edward the Confessor in a package deal with the relics of a now little-appreciated French bureaucrat.

More importantly, London’s oldest and most iconic hospital (founded 1123) was named for Bartholomew, after its founder, court jester/monk Rahere, attributed his miraculous recovery from fever to the saint.

Despite these skills, Bartholomew is not a patron saint of medicine -- instead, he is rather cruelly assigned all the skin-related trades: bookmakers, tanners, and shoemakers.

Celebrate the Feast

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Traditionally, if you’re Armenian, you might observe St. Bartholomew’s Day with harissa and dolma -- though you would have to wait until December 1st, when Armenians commemorate the saint alongside the more interesting St. Thaddeus. If you’re Catholic, you might follow the Lipari by indulging in some fresh-caught fish with capers and a traditional giggi eoliani for desert.

For my part, I commemorated the saint who lost his skin with crispy fried popcorn chicken, which provides the most ~crispy skin~ in every bite.