As with most of the Apostles, very little is known definitively about his life. Nonetheless, there is a wealth of information from Church fathers and from tradition that forms the basis of later legends about the Saint. Eusebius, the great Church historian, relates that after the Ascension of our Lord, he evangelized the countries of the 'Indies'. Now, for the ancient world, this could mean anywhere from Arabia to India proper, but Butler, in his Lives of the Saints, argues that the reference to Brahmans points to a journey to the country of India. In fact, a later missionary, Saint Pantænus, is said to have been shown a copy of St. Matthew's Gospel in Hebrew, left by today's Apostle.
He is said to have met St. Philip in Phrygia, and then to have traveled throughout Asia Minor; this according to St. John Chrysostom, although the specific names of the places he visited have been lost.
Perhaps his most important journey was his last, to the ancient land of Armenia. With St. Thaddeus, he was the first evangelist of that country, which later, under the influence of Gregory the Illuminator, was to become the first Christian nation, perhaps a decade or more before the Edict of Milan made Christianity legal throughout the Roman Empire. Most of the medieval legends revolve around Bartholomew's time in Armenia.
According to the Golden Legend, (which is largely based on one of the early, apocryphal, Acts of the various Apostles), St. Bartholomew, having come to Armenia, entered the temple of a pagan god Ashtaroth, who was known for his healing powers. After the arrival of the Apostle, the demon was no longer able to do anything; the worshippers of this false god, consulting another demon, learned that Ashtaroth was bound with chains of fire by Bartholomew. The adherents of Ashtaroth asked for a description of Bartholomew, in the hopes of capturing him:
And the servants of the Greeks said to him: 'Tell us what he is like, that we may be able to find him'. And the demon answered and said: 'He has black hair, a shaggy head, a fair skin, two large eyes, beautiful nostrils, his ears hidden by the hair of his head, with a yellow beard, a few grey hairs, of middle height, and neither tall nor stunted, but middling, clothed with a white undercloak bordered with purple, and upon his shoulders a very white cloak; and his clothes have been worn twenty-six years, but neither are they dirty, nor have they waxed old. Seven times a day he bends the knee to the Lord, and seven times a night does he pray to God. His voice is like the sonnet of a strong trumpet; there go along with him angels of God, who allow him neither to be weary, nor to hunger, nor to thirst; his face, and his soul, and his heart are always glad and rejoicing; he foresees everything, he knows and speaks every tongue of every nation'.Later, having cured a demoniac and then the daughter of the king, and having expounded the teachings of the faith, he cast the demons out of the temple, and baptized the king.
This in fact was the chief cause of his martyrdom. For when the king's elder brother, also a king, heard of his brother's conversion, he ordered the arrest of Bartholomew. When Bartholomew refused to worship the false gods, he was summarily executed.
There is some confusion about the method of execution. Some accounts indicate he was crucified or beheaded; the most enduring story, though, is that he was flayed alive. Artist, of course, love this subject. He is usually represented with a tanner's knife, often as an old man holding his own skin, as can be seen in the pictures in this post. With her traditional sense of dark humour, Holy Mother Church honours Bartholomew as the patron saint of tanners, leather workers, and shoemakers. He is, of course, one of the patron saints of Armenia, and is invoked against demonic possession and neurological diseases.
The majority of Saint Bartholomew's relics, after several long journeys, finally came to rest in Rome, in the Basilica of San Bartolomeo all'Isola, on the Tiber Island, which I visited today. Later, an arm of the Saint was sent to St. Edward the Confessor, the King of England, who bestowed it on the cathedral Church at Canterbury.
The Basilica of San Bartolomeo is a beautiful Church with a fascinating history. I'll try to put up another post on my visit there soon.