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