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The statue of St Bartholomew in the Milan Duomo

A treaty on human anatomy sculpted in marble; between science and faith

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22 March Mar 2019 1150 22 March 2019

Of the sculptures seen in the Milan Duomo one in particular always creates a lot of interest and curiosity for millions of visitors walking the Monument’s naves every year. It is the statue of “St Bartholomew skinned”, made by the sculptor Marco d’Agrate in 1562 for the Veneranda Fabbrica of the Duomo. It is currently between the altar of the Presentation and the one to St Agnes, standing on a high pedestal, in the right-hand wing of the Cathedral transept.

St Bartholomew is one of Christ’s twelve apostles, executed for his Christian faith, portrayed here based on how he is identified by iconography following the agony suffered.

The Saint, skinned alive, carries what looks like a drape on his shoulders and around his body. But it is his skin; clear reference to the torture inflicted. Up until the XIII-XIV century, the apostle was portrayed dressed holding a book and a knife; alluding to the Gospel proclaimed and martyrdom suffered. They started to portray his agony from the Renaissance onwards. Whereas the saint’s icon with his own skin removed from his flesh was finally sanctified after Michelangelo (XVI century) portrayed him that way in the Universal Judgement in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.

The work of Marco d’Agrate does not do any psychological introspection or give evidence of the deep faith expressed by the martyrdom of Bartholomew. It is part of a 16th century sphere of interest: the study and presentation of human anatomy. The first scientific work on anatomy by Andrea Vesalio, on the autopsy study of the human body and dissection of corpses, was published in Venice in 1453.

The statue was an exercise, a careful description and a virtuous academic essay on the muscles and structure of the human body.

At the foot of the statue a short inscription says: “Non me Praxiteles, sed Marcus finxit Agrates”, referred to the sculptor’s “fear” as he presumed it might not be attributed to him due to style and craftsmanship, but to Praxiteles, one of the most skilled and famous sculptors from Athens in Ancient Greece.

Another version of St Bartholomew, still by Marco d’Agrate, dated 1556, is on the front of the Certosa of Pavia, where the sculptor worked for a long time creating many statues.

“St Bartholomew Skinned”, once outside the Duomo, attracted the interest of the faithful and visitors from the very start. This, along with its delicate surface finish, meant it had to be moved inside; first to behind the Cathedral choir and then to its current place following a chapter house order of 1664 ordering “a more suitable place for the admiration of art intellectuals”.

After almost five centuries the statue of St Bartholomew by Marco d’Agrate is still a marvel and surprise to visitors from all continents.