The recently completed painting ›The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew or the double Martyrdom‹ (2014/2015) will be the focal point of our attention. With its dimensions stretching 98 x 112 inches, it is truly a monumental piece of art. In painting the new retired Pope Benedict XVI. in 2009, Aris Kalaizis had already touched upon sacred matter for his narrative composition ›make/believe‹ to which he added a critical spin. And now a ›Saint Bartholomew‹ followed his depiction of the pontiff, and it now merges iconic religious traditions of northern and southern Europe in an astonishing way.
The Christian martyr is the patron saint of Frankfurt am Main and its principal religious edifice, the Imperial Cathedral, is dedicated to Saint Bartholomew. Until August 2015, visitors to the Cathedral may take a look at that painting and discuss questions related to its unique composition. The religious topic is framed by an enormous landscape panorama, which has been divided into three equal zones that correlate in terms of form and content. The foreground is constituted by a green coastal strip, upon which the figurative scene takes place. It is followed by a body of water that is marked off by a thin red line along the horizon and centers around church ruins. But suspended above the entire composition, we see a gloomy cloudy sky. Relatively cold colors dominate the painting. They are merely counterbalanced by specs of red and the blazing batches belonging to a bonfire in which books are being burned.
At the center of the green plateau, we are shown the flaying of St. Bartholomew. During his missionary work in Armenia, legend has it that he was flayed by heathen henchmen and later was beheaded in India. But Aris Kalaizis consciously chose a composition that is reminiscent of St. Peter's crucifixion. The apostle and founder of the papal church did not deem himself equal to Christ and therefore demanded to be crucified upside down.
...to imagine a straight line that connects his feet with those of the man standing on the right side
The painter has subsumed the saint and his three tormentors in an artful composition. The male figure in a sitting posture on the left hand side not only guides us and opens the pictorial space towards the right but also allows us to imagine a straight line that connects his feet with those of the man standing on the right side. We are looking at two figures that have been modelled off the same person who posed for the painting. If we now imagine a second axis that projects from the left figure's head to the arm of the figure to the right, we may clearly realize how the entire composition is geometrically framed by a conic form.
In addition to the axial points of reference in the painting, the blue books strewn across the foreground, resembling the gospel spread by Bartholomew, connect the figurative agents. Turning to comparing the left and right halves of the painting, we quickly realize a certain disproportionality. While the right side of the painting is partitioned off by the rope hanging down from the upper frame, it at the same time leaves open a space for reflection. The left hand side, on the other hand, offers multiple motifs – the fire, a volcano at the horizon, and a male figure standing in the shallow costal water and holding up a burning book. That figure may be of significant importance in interpreting the painting, as the sitting figure, who is holding a knife and – as we know – guides the beholder towards the scene on the right to him, is also pointing at the man in the water.
In iconographical terms, the painting marks a dramatic turning point with an open, undecided ending. The gloomy and agitated sky is reminiscent of apocalyptic scenes as they have dominated the silver screen in recent years. Some may immediately recall Lars von Trier's ›Melancholia‹ (2011). Saint Bartholomew, however, is in a long tradition that was founded by Michelangelo who has secured his self-portrait on the skin of the martyr within the ›Last Judgment‹ in the Sistine Chapel. But for Aris Kalaizis, interpretations of the subject by Jusepe de Ribera may be more important than this Roman model. Ribera emphasized the temporal and ultimately more brutal character of the martyrdom, by rejecting features in typical depictions of his time in which the martyrdom was rewarded by angels crowning the saint. The church ruins in the sea, of course, invoke the Romantic tradition of, for example, Caspar David Friedrich. Both painters seem to be united, despite the centuries separating them, in their pessimistic view of history in which churches no longer are magnificent structures but instead deserted places. There still may be paths leading up to them, but the flood has made them indecipherable. But critical reflection may still be able to access these ecclesiastical spaces.
...like the angel in ›make/believe‹ he is calling for a return to the powers unseen, for repentance
It is conceivable that the unusual choice of a body of water hinges on a regional antecedent, namely the various villages that vanished during the days of excessive coal mining in the close vicinity of Leipzig. These mining pits have later been flooded and turned into lake landscapes that are supposed to attract tourists. Supporting this interpretation is the choice that Kalaizis made regarding the model for the church ruin, which corresponds to an actual church ruin in a village called Wachau near Leipzig.
Viewed in this way, the figure placed into the water holding up a burning book makes sense. Like the angel in ›make/believe‹ he is calling for a return to the powers unseen, for repentance. The warm red tones in his skin are in opposition to the pale skin and cold blue tones used in the other figures. He definitely does not belong to them or at least is unlike them. As indicated by the picture's title, there are other martyrdoms behind the obvious martyrdom that takes place in the foreground of the scene – there is a secondary, ›double‹ sense of martyrdom in the painting. »He who burns books will also burn human beings«, Heinrich Heine once wrote, but it was also the inquisition that once burnt books, in order to test their orthodoxy (which would supposedly protect the books from catching fire). Does this imply, contrary to the Roman Catholic view, Luther's ›sola scriptura‹? Obviously the possible ways of looking at this painting get a bit more complicated at this point.