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The Anti-David: St. Bartholomew by Marco D'Adrate, 1562

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

A statue has been haunting me. I saw it inside the Duomo of Milan. In retrospect, I think it's the only thing I really saw in the Duomo, because I was caught up in a kind of despair about the interior as a whole, which I found to be oppressive, gloomy, and akin to a forest of prison towers. I may be being waspish, but the interior of that cathedral is a testament to the incoherence only a thousand years of committee meetings and pushy donors can achieve. Everything is made of the very best materials, and there are moments here and there of high quality work (especially in the stained glass behind the altar), but the overall effect is discordant, and elements seem alienated from each other.


So, while I was counting up my negative judgments, I made my way toward the doors which would lead to the lifts that take one to the rooftop. It was a particularly dark corner (the doors leading out of the south transept), and I looked up from the trudging crowd I was in and was startled by this spot-lit sculpture that seemed to hover above us like a ghost.

The statue was unlike anything else in all the acreage of that cathedral--focused, self-contained, charismatic. It arrested my attention, but not because of the sensational grotesquery, but because of its uncanny presence. The subject is Saint Bartholomew, an apostle who was flayed alive in response to his efforts to evangelize Armenia. The sculpture is a paradox--hyper-real in its rendering of what a body peeled of its skin would look like, but unreal in its depiction of a murdered body standing and intensely powerful, conscious, and alive.


I was only dimly aware of the story of the saint when I started photographing religious art. Most of the depictions I had seen were more in the medieval Italian tradition of displaying martyrs as restored and glamorous in their divine bodies, with polite, benign allusions to the instruments of their martyrdom: San Lorenzo would hold a miniature of the griddle he was burned alive upon; Saint Katherine's wheel rests at her side, under a calm and unmarred hand. So, the Bartholmews I had seen would be a robed man, holding a book or palm frond in one hand, and a flaying knife in his other. No violence, only veneration.


D'Adrate knew what he'd accomplished in this work. If you read the base of the statue, it has carved in it, in Latin, "I'm not made by Praxiteles, but by Marco D'Adrate." Praxiteles was an Ancient Greek sculptor celebrated in Ancient Rome and the Renaissance as the master of breath-takingly vivid nude sculpture. But this isn't a nude sculpture in that Classical sense. Depending on your perspective, it's either an anatomy lesson resurrected, or a soul re-animating a corpse. The subject is impossibly alive.


This version of Bartholomew has something, if not to say, to impose. His gaze sternly engages the viewer. He (literally) wears his suffering, but he has utterly mastered that suffering, and uses it to assert a strength beyond that of the flesh. D'Adrate has taken the Renaissance viewpoint of asserting the divinity of the human body, but then he surpasses that and moves onto something beyond the beautiful architecture of the body, (literally) strips it, and presents a sculpture in which human will (or spirit, if you want to hew to a devout interpretation) transcends its own corpse.


He wears his flesh as if it is merely a drape, or perhaps as a kind of trophy, like Hercules was depicted wearing the skin of the Nemean lion he wrestled and overcame. Perhaps that is the conceit here--he has wrestled with the flesh, which can distract one with either pleasure or pain, and he has won.


His right hand holds both his hide (the skin of the fingers dangling like ornamental fringe) and the knife which flayed him. The way he grasps it, like a tool, it's as though he has skinned himself, not as though he is holding a proof of how he was victimized. He stands casually, as if at ease, but his gaze is commanding, resolute.


The tension in the body seems to assert itself on his left side, where he holds open an unnamed book. My bet would be that it's the Gospel of St. Mark, which his hagiography says he left a copy of in India to guide the people in conversion. If this is the case, then the book may gesture to the conviction which animates his spirit beyond death, and/or that it is the force which gives him life beyond his murder.



The head-on encounter with the sculpture is so compelling that one might think that's the whole show (isn't that enough? my goodness). But the side-view of the sculpture (it's against a wall, so a rear-view isn't available), even in the scant light behind it, reveals the terrifying casting-off of Bartholomew's scalp and face as mere drapery. It hangs there, distressingly limp, an afterthought for the saint. It was when I saw this that a message in the sculpture beyond its named subject occurred to me.


Probably the most famous predecessor for D'Adrate who took on this subject of St. Bartholomew was Michelangelo, who, in what was probably the art-world's greatest example of an F.U. to the (papal) boss, painted a fresco of the Last Judgment. (1541) Michelangelo broke just about every lauded convention of medieval Last Judgment art in his fresco, a commission which he did not want to paint. It's ponderous, it is cynical, and it is anything but an affirmation of the order and rightness of God's hierarchies. In the midst of the fresco, Michelangelo placed his name-saint, Bartholomew, prominently in the scene. And, while the image is painted according to convention as a healed and in-tact saintly body (though without robes), the figure has with him his flayed skin, which, though distorted, is a self-portrait of the artist. It's Michelangelo's statement of disgust at the experience of doing this job, implying that the Church leaders themselves have martyred him. Whenever I look at that section of the painting, I hear Janis Joplin singing, "Piece of My Heart."


(image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)


Here in the fresco the dramatic draping flesh of the wrathful saint (who is, notably, holding up his instrument of martyrdom in a threatening gesture towards the Seat of Judgment above, which is pretty aggressive). D'Adrate adopts this gesture in his work, but adapts it to an entirely different message--a pious one. He quotes the Master, but he contradicts him. D'Adrate's medium is sculpture, and in the inscription at the base he compares himself to Praxiteles, not Michelangelo. However, I think that the masterwork that was really on D'Adrate's mind wasn't one by Praxiteles, and wasn't this fresco of Bartholomew, but was actually Michelangelo's "David."




Let's compare: a contrapposto stance, a severe and aggressive gaze, both hands holding weapons (if you'll permit me the concept of the gospel as Bartholomew's source of power), and a hyper-real nude body. But the difference is so striking! Where the David (ca. 1501) is every bit as sensual and celebratory of the flesh as a Classical Dionysus, Apollo, or Antinous, and gives us shrewd power held in resolve, the Bartholomew rips that sensuality off like a mask. Both sculptures are named as religious subjects, but there are political and artistic subtexts.


The David is an individual, a person with agency; the Bartholomew rejects his face, his senses, and sensuality as inessential, or even a hindrance. His body is a vehicle for spirit and divine purpose. He's the Anti-David. I don't know if D'Adrate was sincerely devout and was rejecting a humanist principle, or if this was going Michelangelo one better by saying, "You've made a realistic body from marble, but I can go much further into anatomical accuracy than you did--hold my beer."


Rodney Aist, in his blog, notes that Mark Twain wrote of his encounter of with the D'Adrate's Bartholomew in The Innocents Abroad. Twain is shaken by what he sees:


"The figure was that of a man without a skin; with every vein, artery, muscle, every fiber and tendon and tissue of the human frame represented in minute detail. It looked natural, because somehow it looked as if it were in pain. A skinned man would be likely to look that way unless his attention was occupied with some other matter. It was a hideous thing, and yet there was a fascination about it somehow. I am very sorry I saw it, because I shall always see it now. I shall dream of it sometimes."


In the heavy, dim grey of the Milan Duomo, D'Adrate's St. Bartholomew burns intensely, seems to rearrange the dark stone walls into a stage for itself. All the centuries of dissonant art pieced together around it fade into the background. Its setting is a dark purgatory around the statue, completely opposite to the bright firmament of the Accademia, where the David now holds court. The David inspires, maybe even seduces, where the Bartholomew daunts, and haunts.


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