Bartholomew Cuts the Cheese

_MG_2569Sometimes the symbolism and legends attached to a saint are more notable than the actual saint’s life! So it is with the Apostle Bartholomew (parking lot side of St. Francis de Sales Church), who was adopted as the patron saint of leather tanners and also of cheese sellers — associations that represent two sides of a cow, and two different ideas about faith.

Little is known for certain about Bartholomew’s life. The name is said to mean “Son of Tolmai,” and may have been a nickname; he may also be called “Nathaniel.” He is generally paired with Saint Philip (their two symbols appear side-by-side in our church), and he may have travelled, possibly, to India, Armenia, Persia, and Egypt. His remains are said to have wound up in Benevento and Rome, Italy, although his arm is supposed to have been given to Canterbury Cathedral in England, and his skull is said to be in Frankfurt, Germany.

How did he die? Nobody knows for sure. His symbol in our 1911 church is a “tanner’s knife,” used by leatherworkers to strip cow hides, and described as “the KNIFE with which his persecutors flayed him.” The knife story was chosen to provide an example of faith that was strong enough to withstand torture – an inspirational example in the somewhat anti-Catholic era when our church was built.

The cheese cutting interpretation of the symbol evolved separately in medieval Catholic Florence, Italy. To members of the local Oil, Salt, and Cheese Sellers Guild, looking for a patron saint, the curved blade shown with Saint Bartholomew resembled the familiar tool used for slicing cheese from a round – which is probably why they adopted Bartholomew and felt a cheerful sense of belonging and fraternity whenever they saw his emblem.

Bartholomew’s knife has also sometimes been associated with medicine, since one of his shrines, on an island in Rome, was built on the site of a temple and medical center associated with Asclepius, the ancient Roman god of healing; a medieval hospital was later built nearby. Bartholomew also played an important cameo role as a missionary in Sir Francis Bacon’s utopian fantasy, the New Atlantis, written in the early 1600s – in which Bacon envisioned a mythical island called Bensalem (!) off the coast of Peru, where scientific thought and Christian practice merged together in an imaginary ideal society.

So, depending who is looking at it and when, Bartholomew’s knife can symbolize horrific cruelty, steadfast faith, shared identity, professional expertise, tasty food, medical miracles, or cutting-edge utopian vision. Perhaps, today, it is best regarded as an example of how one symbol can mean vastly different things to different people depending on context – an important reminder in a modern age of instant mass- (and mis-) communication!


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