Mercy: St Bartholomew’s Day, 1572,
Painting by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896),
Painted in 1886,
Oil on canvas
© Tate Britain, London

Mercy: St Bartholomew’s Day, 1572,
Painting by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896),
Painted in 1886,
Oil on canvas
© Tate Britain, London

Gospel of 24 August 2023

Feast of Saint Bartholomew

John 1:45-51

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, the one about whom the prophets wrote: he is Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth.’ ‘From Nazareth?’ said Nathanael ‘Can anything good come from that place?’ ‘Come and see’ replied Philip. When Jesus saw Nathanael coming he said of him, ‘There is an Israelite who deserves the name, incapable of deceit.’ ‘How do you know me?’ said Nathanael. ‘Before Philip came to call you,’ said Jesus ‘I saw you under the fig tree.’ Nathanael answered, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.’ Jesus replied, ‘You believe that just because I said: I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.’ And then he added ‘I tell you most solemnly, you will see heaven laid open and, above the Son of Man, the angels of God ascending and descending.’

Reflection on the painting

Today we celebrate the Feast of Saint Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles. He travelled extensively to spread the Word of God in places such as India, Ethiopia, Lycaonia (modern Turkey), Parthia (modern Iran) and Armenia. It is there in Armenia that the apostle is said to have been martyred by flaying and beheading at the command of the Armenian King Astyages.

Our painting portrays an imaginary incident at the time of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in Paris on 24 August 1572, when thousands of Protestants were slaughtered by Catholics. In our scene set in a rather gloomy interior, we see a lavishly dressed man wearing a white arm-band (sign of a Roman Catholic), rosary beads around his neck, a crucifix fixed upon the brim of his hat and with his sword unsheathed, preparing himself for bloodshed. The religious sister begs for mercy on behalf of the hapless Protestants. However, the man pulls her arm away and moves to follow the call to arms indicated by the friar who beckons from the open doorway. The flowers (some roses and passion flowers) in the bottom left, are withered. The passion flower was a recognised symbol for the suffering of Christ and was often used in Victorian art to indicate a doomed love affair. Here, the wilting flowers indicate that the pious fervour of the Catholic man will have a tragic end.

This painting was not well received at the time. When it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1887, one art critic declared that 'Sir John Millais disappoints expectations' and that his figures offered 'little else but meaningless violence of gesture' (Magazine of Art, 1887, p.272). Whilst Millais shows the pious devotion of a Catholic who is prepared to kill for his beliefs on St Bartholomew's day, today we celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew himself. He suffered the most gruesome death, his body entirely being stripped of his skin... he was stripped of everything, even his skin, before he met his maker... Saint Bartholomew, pray for us.

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Michael Neville
Member
Michael Neville
6 months ago

i don’t understand the phrase “the pious devotion of a Catholic who is prepared to kill for his beliefs”. Does this mean that it is a pious devotion to kill people who disagree with our beliefs?

Ana G
Member
Ana G
6 months ago

I believe that it is our duty to pray for Christians – today and every day – who are suffering persecution for being faithful to their faith, so that God gives them strength and comfort and that they know that they are not alone, because many of us have them in our prayers and our hearts.

Ana G
Member
Ana G
6 months ago

I know it’s too late to write, and also the contact with CA hasn’t arrived in my email for days, so it’s more difficult for me to connect.
But I didn’t want to let the day go by without telling my friends from CA that today, at the Eucharist, and thinking about the martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, I was remembering that same martyrdom that a bishop suffered here, in Spain, during our cruel civil war ( 1936-1939) and immediately before it. It was not the worst of tortures. There were thousands of men and women religious, priests and lay people who were tortured in ways I don’t want to count, and who died simply for being Catholic. Some took care of the sick, of the marginalized, of giving education to the humblest classes. My father told us how an uncle of his, a pharmacist in a town, was killed for the “crime” of going to mass every day. But that is the past. Today many Christians continue to die in the world, assassinated for the fact of being Christians. I think it is our duty to pray for God to give them strength and comfort and that they know that they are not alone, because many of us have them in our prayers and our hearts.
As for today’s painting, it’s not that it’s one of my favorites. I see it as exaggerated and melodramatic, but… Picasso’s “Guernica” is even more so (obviously, with the different pictorial styles of each era) and I think he wants to draw attention to the contradictory and absurdity of wars… and even more so if they are for religious issues. It is very different to die for fidelity to your faith than to kill for fidelity to your religion.
I think there is a beautiful answer to that in today’s gospel. Nathanael starts from the prejudice: nothing good can come out of Nazareth. That prejudice lasts five minutes: until he meets the Nazarene. Jesus, who knows that prejudice, does not begin by defending himself, but by praising the good that is in Nathanael. It softens his heart and opens wide before the power of Jesus’ presence. Let’s see if we learn from him to work with the prejudices that exist among us! Here is a saying that says: “Prejudices are cured by traveling”, that is, knowing these people about whom we have already issued a negative judgment before meeting them: because of their origin, because of their social situation…

Chazbo M
Member
Chazbo M
6 months ago
Reply to  Ana G

Well it may have arrived late Ana but I have read it and absorbed your message.
I have studied the Spanish Civil War and it makes the point that I have been trying to make all day. That in 1930s Spain there was very little middle ground. It was about being Fascist or Communist and if you didn’t want either you really needed to get out.
This mindset is gaining ground again in the West, in my opinion.

Ana G
Member
Ana G
6 months ago
Reply to  Chazbo M

There were people who were neither fascists nor communists, nor were they interested in political movements. But they saw how they began to set fire to the convents where their sister nuns were, to burn churches, etc. And their rebellion had nothing to do with being fascists. There were groups whose leaders had specified that they wanted to destroy religion… and that made them side with those who defended their sisters, their priests, etc., beyond their political position. It is a very complex story, but religious persecution played a fundamental role. May we never see anything like this again!

Chazbo M
Member
Chazbo M
6 months ago
Reply to  Ana G

True – awful times.

Zeffi
Member
Zeffi
6 months ago
Reply to  Ana G

Ana, I sometimes find my notifications have been put into the “junk” or “spam” folder – have you looked there?

Ana G
Member
Ana G
6 months ago
Reply to  Zeffi

Well, I haven’t seen it. I do not know how to do it. I’m sorry! I’ll try to find out tomorrow, but I’m not at all sure how to do it.

Polly French
Member
Polly French
6 months ago
Reply to  Ana G

I love the way you expressed dying for your religion is completely killing for your religion Ana. I had wanted to express something to that effect all day but wasn’t sure how to. I find killing for any reason especially religion abhorrent, naturally!

Polly French
Member
Polly French
6 months ago
Reply to  Polly French

Completely different obvious.

Kate Casper
Member
Kate Casper
6 months ago
Reply to  Polly French

I liked that sentiment too, Polly. On another front, I must learn more about the Spanish Civil War; time to get reading.

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