old horror

Saint Bartholomew

Today I was selecting photographs to post to my Flickr stream from those I took at the Church of Saint Bartholomew in Sóller, Mallorca.

One of them was the above photograph of the eponymous saint himself, Saint Bartholomew. As I was examining the photograph I realised there was another face hanging from the Saint’s waist. It was a WTF? moment. I hadn’t even seen it when I’d taken the original photograph.

Thankfully, a small bit of Internet research cleared it up. Bartholomew is reported as being martyred in three different ways, all of them bloody. The most popular variety is being skinned alive. Hence, pictures and sculptures of the saint depict him as carrying his own skin.

Therefore those folds of material you see hanging from the saint’s waist, along with the face, are actually the entire skin and face of the saint himself.

Just imagine the uneducated, poor Spanish peasant in medieval times walking under that looming statue, staring up at the literal representation of martyrdom.

Actually, that’s pretty tame compared to another image I spotted in a Mallorcan church (more of that anon). Here’s a more horrifying image of Saint Bartholomew:

St Bart skinned

Thanks to the Creative Commons licence I can replicate this image of the Statue of St. Bartholomew, carrying his own skin, created by Marco d’Agrate in 1562 for the Duomo di Milano.

They may not have had movies or comic books in the sixteenth century, but Italian sculptors sure knew how to dramatise events.

When I look at that statue of Saint Bartholomew I immediately wonder if Clive Barker ever gazed upon it and dreamed of cenobites.

Although, that’s not the end of the violence associated with our flayed saint. There was also the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris in 1579, which saw the murder of numerous prominent Huguenots. Once again, it inspired bloody art:

St Bartholomew's Massacre

This is by François Dubois, a Huguenot who didn’t witness the massacre, but the terrible event fired his imagination.

While I appreciate the cinematic overview of the event – the equivalent of the crane shot of the day – I prefer the intimate drama embodied in this amazing painting, ‘Un matin devant la porte du Louvre, huile sur toile‘, by Édouard Debat-Ponsan in 1880.

Un matin devant la porte du lourve

Comic book artists would recognise the outstanding narrative skills in this painting, which depicts Catherine de’ Medici surveying the dead Protestants. She and her son, King Charles IX of France, ordered a hit on the prominent Huguenots, but it quickly escalated and turned into a three-day indiscriminate slaughter.

There is so much going on in Debat-Ponsan’s painting: regret, revulsion, loyalty and satisfaction. Here, the horror of the event is personalised.

We see the person who ordered death, and must live with it afterwards, no matter the gain.

Horror, old or new, is most effective when it is demonstrated via a personal narrative.

Such as in this affecting moment of love and fear painted by John Everett Millais in 1852 called ‘A Huguenot on St Bartholomew’s Day‘.

Huguenot lovers on St. Bartholomew's Day