The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew
oil on canvas
75 1/2 in. x 74 1/2 in. (191.77 cm x 189.23 cm)
A bearded man stands tied to a wooden post. Wearing only a white loincloth, he stands with arms spread and head turned skyward toward a small putto above. Flanking him are two men with knives, who begin to skin him alive as spectators watch nearby. This painting on canvas has a dark palette of browns and blues, and the faces of the torturers are in shadow. Yet the chest and profile of the man at center are illuminated, as is the paper attached to the wood above his head, which reads “Bartholomew, Christian.” These tonal contrasts draw the viewer’s eye not to the gruesome act of flaying, but rather to the pain and suffering expressed in the face and stance of the tortured man.
Context and Analysis
The man depicted is St. Bartholomew, an apostle of Jesus known for bringing the Christian religion to India and Armenia in the early years of the Common Era. According to Christian texts, Bartholomew was a martyr, tortured and killed for his religious beliefs. Italian artist Mattia Preti painted this work while living in Naples from 1653 to 1660. It belongs to a series that also includes paintings of martyred saints Peter (Barber Institute of Arts, the University of Birmingham, 71.1) and Paul (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). Preti painted the group for Ferdinand van den Einden, a Flemish merchant living in Naples. After the merchant’s death in 1674, the works were dispersed among his three daughters. His daughter Caterina inherited St. Bartholomew
Although Preti had worked in Rome before moving to Naples, he evidently was looking to his Neapolitan predecessor Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652) when creating this work. Ribera, who died just before Preti’s arrival in Naples, had painted numerous scenes of martyrs, including a St. Bartholomew
now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. In his works Ribera employed the same strong contrast of light and dark to create violent intensity.
Subjects of martyrdom were popular during the Counter-Reformation, as the Roman Catholic Church sought to reaffirm the importance of saints and gather historical information on early Christian figures. Yet Preti’s ability to capture human suffering may have come from personal experience as well. After he arrived in Naples, plague ravaged the city in 1656. One of his most important commissions was to paint images of the patron saints of Naples on city gates, a measure that officials hoped would help guard residents against illness. His depiction of St. Bartholomew’s suffering, painted shortly thereafter, was likely informed by these events.
A connection can be made between this painting and Odilon Redon’s La Mort: Mon Ironie Dépasse Toutes les Autres! (Death: My Irony Surpasses All Others!)
of 1889 (Currier, 1993.20
). This work belonged to a series of lithographs made for Gustave Flaubert’s Temptation of St. Anthony
, which draws its title from another early Christian saint. Although Redon’s work is not grounded in a specific time or place, his figure of Death has a similar upturned face and illuminated chest to that of Preti’s Bartholomew, which again serve to increase the drama of the scene.
Written by Elizabeth A. Nogrady
Spike, John T. A Brush with Passion: Mattia Preti (1613–1699): Paintings from North American Collections in Honor of the 400th Anniversary of His Birth
. Exh. cat. Williamsburg, VA: Muscarelle Museum of Art; Florence, Italy: Centro Di, 2013. A Taste for Angels: Neapolitan Painting in North America
, 1650–1750. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1987.
Wegner, Susan E. “Passion and Piety: Mattia Preti’s Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew.” Currier Bulletin
(Fall 1989): 26–56.
Whitfield, Clovis, and Jane Martineau, eds. Painting in Naples 1606–1705: From Caravaggio to Giordano
. London: Royal Academy of Arts and Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982.
1972 Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, "Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts from the Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire." May 14 - June 20.
1974 Mead Art Building, Amherst College, Amherst, MA, "Major Themes in Roman Baroque Art from Regional Collections." April 7 - 30, no. 43.
1979 Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, "Small Gallery on a Large Scale." June 16 - July 29.
1983 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, "Painting in Naples from Caravaggio to Giordano." Feb. 13 - May 1.
1986 Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME, "Masterpieces from the Currier Gallery of Art." Sept. 11 - Nov. 2.
1987-1988 "A Taste for Angels: Neapolitan Paintings in North America, 1650 - 1750." Organized by Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT. Traveled to: Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, Sept. 9 - Dec. 6, 1987; Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FL, Jan. 13 - March 13, 1988; Nelson - Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO, April 30 - June 12, 1988.
2013 Muscarelle Museum of Art, Williamsburg, VA, "A Brush with Passion: Mattia Preti (1613-1699), Paintings from North American Collections in Honor of the 400th Anniversary of His Birth." Feb. 9 - April 14.
2017-18 Currier Museum of Art, "Going Baroque." Dec. 9, 2017-Aug. 2018
Marshall Spink Old Masters, London, England
Purchased by Currier Gallery of Art, 1970