TIEPOLO, Giovanni Battista
(b. 1696, Venezia, d. 1770, Madrid)

The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew

Oil on canvas, 167 x 139 cm
San Stae, Venice

To the testament of Andrea Stazio, a Venetian nobleman who died in 1722, we owe a cycle of paintings of great importance in the history of Venetian art. The will provided that twelve canvases should be painted for the church of San Stae (Venetian for St Eustace). All similar in size, they depict episodes in the lives of the Apostles and their martyrdom. The commission was given to twelve different Venetian painter, ranging from the aged Nicolò Bambini, then seventy-one, through to Giambattista Tiepolo, almost at the start of his career.

All the paintings were completed within a few months, in 1722 and early 1723. The artists were the following in alphabetic order: Antonio Balestra, Nicolò Bambini, Gregorio Lazzarini, Silvestro Manaigo, Giambattista Mariotti, Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, Giambattista Piazzetta, Giambattista Pittoni, Sebastiano Ricci, Giambattista Tiepolo, Angelo Trevisano and Pietro Uberti. They vied with each other to transform the church into a remarkable showcase of currents and developments in eighteenth-century Venetian art.

Tiepolo's painting is part of the cycle of the Apostles which as a 'collective exhibition' fortunately remained intact in the choir of the Baroque church San Stae, giving an outline of Venetian painting of the period. The subject of the painting is the martyrdom of St Bartholomew, whose tormentors are on the point of flaying him alive. The awfulness of the scene is matched by the extremely powerful composition which places the writhing body of the saint along the diagonal between the two henchmen. The eerie contrast between light and shade makes the scene all the more vivid. The expressive gesture with which the despairing saint stretches his arm heavenward transforms the picture into a wonderful depiction of divine grace, the existence of which is already signaled by the bright light emanating from above.

This painting was inspired by Piazzetta and is placed opposite his St James in San Stae, and it is almost its mirror image. As in the other work, the structure dynamically offsets conflicting forces, rendered by means of a chiastic arrangement of diagonals and clear contrasts of light and shade.