An important rediscovery, the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew is a hitherto unknown work that constitutes a major addition to the oeuvre of Matthias Stomer. Saint Bartholomew is traditionally identified as one of Christ’s original twelve apostles. After the Resurrection, Bartholomew is believed to have preached the gospel in India and Armenia. In the latter region, he was flayed alive and then hung upside-down for refusing to worship idols. In Stomer’s dramatic canvas, the doomed saint is posed frontally in half-length. He is stripped to his loin cloth and one of the executioners has already begun his grisly task. Stomer has added the remarkable motif of a robed figure at the far left–perhaps a pagan priest–who holds a golden statuette of Minerva before the elderly saint, alluding to the immediate cause of his martyrdom.
The talented Stomer is, unjustly, one of the most understudied artists of the 17th century. Indeed, the sheer paucity of scholarly publications on Stomer stands in sharp relief to the quality and significance of his ample oeuvre. Compounding our difficulties in assessing Stomer is the utter lack of geographical documentation and firmly dated pictures, despite his high output. As Marten Jan Bok has pointed out, the name, Stom -- the actual name by which our painter was known during his lifetime, though he is generally called Stomer in modern art-historical literature -- is of Southern Netherlandish (Flemish) derivation, as many persons bearing that name in the Dutch Republic had emigrated from that region of the Low Countries (M.J. Bok, “Matthias Stom,” in Nieuw licht op de Gouden Eeuw; Hendrick ter Brugghen en tijdgenoten, Utrecht, 1986-1987, p. 333, notes 16,17). It is entirely conceivable that Stomer himself was a Flemish émigré to the North.
Regardless of whether Stomer did indeed emigrate to the Netherlands, he probably received his artistic training in Utrecht or possibly Amersfoort as the influence of Dutch painters from both those towns in terms of style and subject matter is readily detectable in his earliest work. If Stomer’s initial training took place in the studio of a major artist in Utrecht, the most plausible candidate would be Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588-1629), who returned home in 1614 after a protracted stay in Italy. In fact, Ter Brugghen himself provided an interesting prototype for Stomer’s painting. The older painter’s lost Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, known from a late 17th-century inventory (L.J. Slatkes and W. Franits, The Paintings of Hendrick ter Brugghen 1588-1629: Catalogue Raisonné, Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 2007, p. 266, cat. L7) and today only from a copy (Germany, private collection), likewise portrays the story on a rectangular canvas with physically assertive, half-length figures positioned before a neutral background. Despite Ter Brugghen’s important pictorial precedent, Stomer’s Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew dates to his Roman period, specifically, c. 1630-1635 – he is already documented in Naples by the latter year (M. Osnabrugge, “New Documents for Matthias Stom in Naples,” The Burlington Magazine, 156, 2014, pp. 107-108). At some point before 1630, Stomer had departed the Netherlands for Rome, where he is recorded that year as living on the Strada dell’Ormo, according to the Stato delle Anime (annual Easter census) for the parish of San Nicolà in Arcione: "Mattheo Stom, fiamengo pittore, di anni 30.” (G. J. Hoogewerff, Nederlandsche kunstenaars te Rome (1600-1725): uittreksels uit de parochiale archieven, The Hague, 1942, p. 279). The recording of his age in this census, 30, enables us to posit a birth date of c. 1600.
The present canvas compares favorably with a number of religious paintings in daylight that Stomer executed during his years in Rome, including Christ among the Doctors (Private collection, Bergamo); Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal), and Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple (fig. 1). All of these pictures share the same compositional arrangement of animated figures pressed close to the picture plane before an unarticulated background with an additional head or two looming in the interstices behind the main protagonists. As for the subject of our canvas, the Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) made the most pictures by far of the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, but all of these were executed in Naples during the 1620s and beyond (see, for example, N. Spinosa, Ribera. L’opera completa, 2nd ed., Naples 2006, pp. 273, 287, 288, cats. A46, AA71, A72). Nevertheless, Stomer was likely familiar with a picture of the saint’s martyrdom painted in Rome by the French Caravaggist Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632), datable to c. 1616 (fig. 2). The hoary-headed saint’s face in Valentin’s work recalls Stomer’s, as does his leathery, wizened body, clothed only with a loin cloth. More significantly, both painters employ a similar facture, accentuated by rich impasto highlights, even if the Frenchman’s tonalities are more silvery.
Wayne Franits, Ph.D
Professor of Art History