Aris Kalaizis

Aris Kalaizis: "The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew or the double Martyrdom"

In this text describes the Ger­man-Amer­ic­an author Paul-Henri Camp­bell the recep­tion his­tory of the St. Bartho­lomew at the example of Kalaizis' large-size paint­ing. In addi­tion, he exam­ines the reli­gious Impetus with­in the "Leipzig School".

Aris Kalaizis, The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew or the double Martyrdom | Oil on canvas | 98 x 112 in | 2014/15
Aris Kalaizis, The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew or the double Martyrdom | Oil on canvas | 98 x 112 in | 2014/15

In Janu­ary 2015, the Greco-Ger­man paint­er Aris Kala­izis com­pleted a large-scale oil paint­ing that shows the mar­tyr­dom of St. Bartho­lomew. The ideas inform­ing that work of art have been inspired by the long his­tory of ador­a­tion regard­ing that saint at the Imper­i­al Cathed­ral in Frank­furt am Main, Ger­many. From the goth­ic peri­od on, espe­cially after a rel­ic of Bartho­lomew was brought to the city, the Bib­lic­al nar­rat­ive as well as medi­ev­al lore have encour­aged the fab­ric­a­tion of numer­ous depic­tions of the mar­tyr with­in and around the cathedral.
»The Mar­tyr­dom of St. Bartho­lomew or the double Mar­tyr­dom« is a con­tem­por­ary inter­pret­a­tion that con­fronts thirty-three depic­tions of the mar­tyr at the Imper­i­al Cathed­ral. As we shall see, the paint­ing con­tests the very claim that the Cath­ol­ic Church makes on the shoulders of its can­on­ized celebrit­ies. We shall fur­ther­more see that in doing so this paint­ing uncov­ers some­thing cent­ral to the phe­nomen­on of reli­gious faith itself. 

Aris Kalaizis's approach to St. Bartho­lomew is remark­able on mul­tiple levels. To begin with, it is the first time a mem­ber of the ›Neue Leipzi­ger Schule‹ has worked in dir­ect con­front­a­tion with an eccle­si­ast­ic­al struc­ture in Frank­furt am Main. Secondly, the paint­ing aug­ments the reli­gious theme of mar­tyr­dom by incor­por­at­ing ele­ments derived from recent Ger­man his­tory. It blends hagi­o­graphy with con­tem­por­ary his­tori­ography, for instance, by refer­ring to the Nazi book burn­ings on the nearby Römer­berg in 1933. Finally, the theo­lo­gic­al motif of Christ's Pas­sion, which the mar­tyr imit­ates in his suf­fer­ing, is cent­ral to this new paint­ing — even though this may seem nat­ur­al, it isn’t exactly what most of the oth­er depic­tions do and what makes Kalaizis' paint­ing note­worthy, as we shall see.

Aris Kala­izis, Reli­gion, and the ›Neue Leipzi­ger Schule/​New Leipzig School‹

First, let us look at Aris Kala­izis in the con­text of his artist­ic roots in Leipzig as well as con­tem­por­ary Ger­man art. After the Iron Cur­tain era had come to an end and with it the GDR, a young gen­er­a­tion of artists chal­lenged the aes­thet­ic dom­in­ant in West Ger­many by insist­ing on a crit­ic­al affirm­a­tion of the can­on. The Academy in Leipzig ori­gin­ally was spe­cial­ized in visu­al arts related to book mak­ing, but began to rival oth­er East Ger­man academies in Dresden and Ber­lin, when Bernhard Heis­ig intro­duced classes in paint­ing to the cur­riculum in the 1960s. These young men were for the most part born dur­ing the 1960s in East Ger­many. They were the second gen­er­a­tion of (fig­ur­at­ive) paint­ers who had come from the Academy. Their cru­cible was the city of Leipzig, and they proudly traced their roots to the Academy of Visu­al Arts (›Hoch­schule für Grafik und Buchkunst‹).

Through­out the 1990s, they rein­vig­or­ated tech­niques used by the Old Mas­ters, even though the West Ger­man abstract schools declared fig­ur­at­ive paint­ing dead. In defi­ance of self-pro­claimed avant-gard­ists, they focused on skill and crafts­man­ship, as it had been the under­stand­ing of Duer­er, El Greco, Rib­era, or Velázquez. Thus, the ›Neue Leipzi­ger Schule‹ quickly found its audi­ence by bring­ing new ideas to clas­sic­al approaches to the art form. They pushed for innov­a­tion without dis­cred­it­ing the past and thereby did not degen­er­ate into the hypo­therm­ic cyn­icism that ulti­mately – today – left their com­pet­it­ors bit­ter and barren.
Reflect­ing on the Leipzig School, one should not, how­ever, con­sider a single gen­er­a­tion in isol­a­tion. This is par­tic­u­larly import­ant, when one con­siders their artist­ic approach to reli­gious themes. For mem­bers of the ›Old‹ Leipzig School, though no strangers to reli­gion, had struggled with reli­gious themes and motifs under a Com­mun­ist régime and in the cli­mate of sys­tem­ic athe­ism, which that régime had cre­ated. Even though the Leipzig area had his­tor­ic­ally, of course, been the heart­land of the Reform­a­tion, the ideo­lo­gic­al rationale of 20th cen­tury East Ger­many was Com­mun­ist, until Reuni­fic­a­tion in 1991. Artist born shortly before or dur­ing World War II dom­in­ated the ›Old‹ Leipzig School. It was that group of artists by which the gen­er­a­tion of Kala­izis was intro­duced to paint­ing at the Academy. His gen­er­a­tion learned from Wern­er Tübke's monu­ment­al ›Bauernkriegspan­or­ama‹ in Bad Franken­hausen (1976−1987) as well as his ›Zeller­feld­er Altar‹ (1997); or from Bernhard Heisig's ›Neues vom Turmbau‹ (1977); or from Arno Rink's ›Itali­en­is­che Begegnung‹ (1978). All the works just men­tioned deal with reli­gious mat­ter in one way or another.

Tübke's or Rink's interest in reli­gion was partly ideo­lo­gic­ally, partly exist­en­tially motiv­ated. View­ing their work in ret­ro­spect, one is astoun­ded by the amal­gam­a­tion of ration­al­ist­ic cri­tique of reli­gion and somber obsess­ive fas­cin­a­tion with reli­gion. Artists in that earli­er gen­er­a­tion of the Leipzig School fre­quently com­bined their cri­tique of reli­gion with a cri­tique of author­it­ari­an gov­ern­ment. They rebelled against reli­gion as much as they util­ized reli­gion in their rebel­lion against a Social­ist gov­ern­ment, which they feel dis­con­tent about.
Although the older gen­er­a­tion of Leipzig School artists rejec­ted the Chris­ti­an faith, for polit­ic­al or oth­er reas­ons, and although most artists from the young­er gen­er­a­tion received an athe­ist upbring­ing (as it was typ­ic­al in social­ist coun­tries), paint­ers such as Neo Rauch, Michael Triegel, Bruno Gries­el, or Aris Kala­izis are not at all deaf to the powers unseen. On the con­trary, their curi­os­ity and lust and yearn­ing for tran­scend­ence is much more vibrant and fresh and appar­ent, than their West­ern coun­ter­parts, even though the reli­gious insti­tu­tions remained gen­er­ally intact in places like Bolzano, Vienna, Zurich, Munich, Cologne, Düs­sel­dorf, or Hamburg.

Even though the athe­ism of an East Ger­man child­hood may have ali­en­ated them from tra­di­tion­al forms of liturgy and reli­gious prac­tice, the his­tory of art brought reli­gious themed images to them. Thus their unique and pro­duct­ive per­spect­ive, unpar­alleled in the sec­u­lar soci­ety of West­ern demo­cracy. It is neces­sary to under­stand that these young men did not see a con­tra­dic­tion between the new and the old, but rather saw a rup­ture, forever ineffaceable. 
They moved toward this chasm like strangers, like amazed chil­dren. Although they are full aware that the 21st cen­tury isn’t the 11th or the 17th cen­tury, the artists asso­ci­ated with the ›Neue Leipzi­ger Schule‹ are united in striv­ing toward tech­nic­al per­fec­tion, use of per­spect­ive, and fig­ur­at­ive com­pos­i­tion. The spir­it of Rubens and Michelan­gelo is evid­ent every­where in their work. But they are not naïve invig­or­at­ors of some­what rare, some­what anti­quated tech­niques and ways of think­ing; instead, they are eye to eye with the rad­ic­al trans­form­a­tions that took place through­out the 20th cen­tury in paint­ing as well as in our views con­cern­ing the status of painting.

Unlike the Pre-Raphael­ite Broth­er­hood in Eng­land or the Naz­arenes in Aus­tria, paint­ers from Leipzig do not cel­eb­rate their styl­ist­ic inher­it­ance and indebted­ness in the sense of anti­mod­ern­ist protest. Their inten­tion is not a resti­tu­tion of the past, but an attempt at mak­ing the pas­tures of the past arable for the seeds of tomor­row. Thus their yearn­ing is not nos­tal­gic, thus their enorm­ous mod­ern­ity. This is why they have not grown bit­ter in stub­born revolt, but rich in pro­duct­ive vision.
Aris Kala­izis occu­pies a spe­cial place in the unfold­ing his­tory of the ›Neue Leipzi­ger Schule‹. Born in 1966, he grew up in Leipzig as the son of Greek immig­rants. His path to paint­ing was long; and it was an unlikely path. His fath­er and moth­er belong to the throngs of ten-thou­sands of chil­dren who have been force­fully sep­ar­ated from their par­ents after the Greek Civil war and have been depor­ted to Soviet con­trolled coun­tries, such as the GDR. His par­ents later worked in the graph­ic­al industry in Leipzig. His pos­i­tion of oth­er­ness already begins here.

One should not under­es­tim­ate what it meant to grow up in an immig­rant fam­ily with­in the homo­gen­ous fab­ric of East Ger­man soci­ety in the middle of the past cen­tury. Being dif­fer­ent — to be dif­fer­ent: because your true ori­gin is where Apollo strives against Dionysus, because you truly come from where Pan rustles among the oleander and cypress groves, and where some for­lorn nymph seems to be wink­ing dain­tily at every rip­pling sweet water spring. His life's story can hardly be told. After it has been writ­ten down, it will seem as though it was inven­ted or dreamt up. 

…what is Sottorealism?

We will hear of a small boy play­ing soc­cer on the out­skirts of Leipzig dur­ing the early 1970s. We will hear how he dashed towards the goal but sud­denly came to a full stop, his aban­doned ball rolling on, because he was sud­denly over­whelmed by some dis­tant scene that came into his sight, his cap­tiv­ated gaze arrest­ing his entire body in midfield.
The real­ity, in which Aris Kala­izis came of age, was rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent from the social­iz­a­tion of his thor­ough­bred Ger­man peers. Nev­er­the­less, it was the real­ity in which he ini­tially became an appren­tice in the print­ing industry and was trained in com­mer­cial off­set print­ing. It was the real­ity in which his fath­er build him his first easel of spare woods and gave it to him for Christ­mas; and in which his moth­er bore the scent of for­eign herbs and spices, while the oth­er chil­dren were forced to eat Sax­on and Thuringi­an spe­cial­ties for lunch.
Look­ing back at this van­ished world of the GDR, in which every­body seemed to be more or less com­pli­city accom­mod­ated with the warped frame­work of Social­ist real­ity, one isn’t sur­prised that, after Ger­man Reuni­fic­a­tion in 1991, Aris Kala­izis decided to hence­forth frame his own images of the world. One is no longer sur­prised to learn that he hence­forth picked the frame-size he thought fit for his vis­ion. We are no longer sur­prised that his artist­ic oeuvre insists on the autonomy and mul­ti­fa­ceted nature of what we see.
And thus he goes forth and knocks upon the gates of the fam­ous ›Hoch­schule für Grafik und Buch­kunst‹. He is admit­ted. He soon becomes the mas­ter stu­dent of Arno Rink. He then foun­ded a gal­lery with some friends, the maerz­galer­ie. They quickly become suc­cess­ful. His paint­ings are soon bought by col­lect­ors all over Ger­many, Aus­tria, France, the Neth­er­lands. He is invited to New York City, then tours China. His story is no fairytale. It is quite real. But it must be told like a fairytale, for it was unlikely.
It was an Amer­ic­an art his­tor­i­an, many years later, who real­ized that we need new cat­egor­ies in order to under­stand his work. In study­ing his art­work, while he spent a year in New York City, Car­ol Strick­land coined the term ›Sot­toreal­ism‹ in order to appre­hend what his hap­pen­ing on his canvas. 

…it's a brand of meta­phys­ics that is in love — that adores this world's mor­tal coil

What is ›Sot­toreal­ism‹? Think of the music­al term ›sotto voce‹: a gentle, whis­per­ing way of speak­ing. Sotto voce: Mozart's scores are full of it. Sot­toreal­ism: it denotes the mur­murs beneath and above real­ity. Dis­son­ance. Glisten­ing. It is a brand of meta­phys­ics that is in love — that adores this world's mor­tal coil. 
Acknow­ledging that what we see is not real­ism, as it was in fash­ion dur­ing the 19th cen­tury, nor any vari­ety of sur­real­ism. What Strick­land saw, was some new her­men­eut­ic. Cer­tainly, there is in almost every Leipzig School paint­er (old or new) a grain of that care­fully guarded, dis­trust­fully shiel­ded in-the-closet spir­itu­al­ity known from the revolu­tion­ary Rus­si­ans, from Soviet art, which, in order to be con­sist­ent with its Marx­ist dogma, would not admit that there was a desire for tran­scend­ence creep­ing in along the seams. 
Even though Sot­toreal­ism denotes a per­spect­ive bey­ond real­ism and sur­real­ism, it is also bey­ond the occa­sion­al effer­ves­cence of grace. Sot­toreal­ism oper­ates in the rationale of dreams, night­mares as well as day­dreams, it makes use of rev­er­ies, modes and states of intox­ic­a­tion, trance, mad­ness and fury, but it is not itself a depic­tion of dreams, rev­er­ies, trance, mad­ness, fury. Instead, it gives us a real­ity that is influ­enced by such modes of per­cep­tion. These degrees of irra­tion­al­ity weigh upon the real­ity that is depic­ted. They delude that real­ity. But Sot­toreal­ist­ic real­ity always stays as real as a pol­luted lake stays a body of water, how­ever many tox­ins and counter-tox­ins we might pour into it.

St. Bartho­lomew at the Imper­i­al Cathed­ral – Exist­ing Art­work and New Discoveries

In the cathedral's orbit there are at least 33 depic­tions of church's pat­ron saint in vari­ous art­works, ran­ging from oil paint­ing to fresco paint­ing, from sculp­ture to vasa sac­ra and litur­gic­al vest­ments. In the course of his first exhib­i­tion at the ›Dom­mu­seum Frank­furt‹, which show­cased oil paint­ings such as ›Make/​Believe‹ (2009) and ›The Silence of the Woods‹ (2010), Aris Kala­izis became intrigued by the loc­al cult of St. Bartho­lomew and began to immerse him­self into the apostle's life and works.
Kala­izis, how­ever, did not primar­ily study the numer­ous hagi­o­graph­ic­al sources that give (occa­sion­ally con­tra­dic­tious) accounts of his mis­sion­ary work in India and Armenia. Instead, he care­fully med­it­ated over the afore­men­tioned mater­i­al wit­nesses at the cathed­ral, its artwork.
Cer­tainly, the Kala­izis is aware of the Bib­lic­al ref­er­ences to Bartho­lomew offered by Mat­thew (10:3), Mark (3:18), Luke (6:14) as well as the Acts of the Apostles (1:13). He is informed about the fact that the Evan­gel­ists use the Ara­maic bar-Tôl­may (son of the plough­man) as well as Nath­an­ael (gift of God). The paint­er real­ized the extent of the missionary's voy­ages: allegedly, he vis­ited India, the land of the Medes and the Per­sians, Syr­ia, Ger­mania, the Parthi­ans, even Armenia.

Aris Kalaizis, Detail: The Silence of the Wood (2010)
Aris Kalaizis, Detail: The Silence of the Wood (2010)

Col­lect­ing the lives of the saints, the medi­aev­al book ›Legenda aurea‹, com­piled by the Domin­ic­an schol­ar Jac­o­bus de Vor­agine (1230−1298), gives a detailed account of St. Bartholomew's life. This ›Golden Legend‹ was even more pop­u­lar dur­ing the Middle Ages than the Bible itself. Its novella-like nar­rat­ives or Vitae, rich in detail and ima­gin­a­tion, have become cent­ral to west­ern art. The ›Legenda aurea‹, in any case, tells us the story of a preach­er who raved against the ador­a­tion of hea­then deit­ies or their graven images. It also tells us the story of Bartho­lomew, heal­ing the daugh­ter of a hea­then king by dis­pelling evil spir­its. Anoth­er story entails the nefar­i­ous com­mand giv­en by loc­al elites, order­ing him to be flayed and skinned alive. But this is not the only story regard­ing his mar­tyr­dom. For even though the pun­ish­ment of skin­ning a human being was pre­dom­in­ately used in ancient Per­sia, it was not the only nar­rat­ive about his mar­tyr­dom: oth­er sources speak of a cru­ci­fix­ion with his head point­ing down­wards (like St. Peter's), about him being dumped and drowned in the ocean, some speak of a beheading. 

As soon as we com­pare the sources crit­ic­ally, a wide field of con­tra­dic­tions opens up, which is, of course, quite com­mon in Chris­ti­an hagi­o­graphy or for that mat­ter in any type of tra­di­tion car­ried over large peri­ods of time by a forever shift­ing and trans­form­ing cul­ture. The West­ern can­on is a mot­ley phant­asmagor­ia of lore, law, lilts, and lul­la­bies labor­i­ously passed on by let­ter, lip, and rite in a con­stantly fluc­tu­at­ing pageant.
The his­tory of piety and ador­ing the apostle Bartho­lomew in Frank­furt am Main begins at least when the rel­ic, a calotte-like frag­ment of a human skull (12 cm by 7 cm), is trans­ferred to the city. In 1215, a seal was attached to a deed con­cern­ing the loc­al col­legi­ate chapter that shows the saint. Some his­tor­i­ans even believe the rel­ic had been already brought from S. Bar­to­lomeo on the Tiber Island in Rome to Frank­furt am Main in the mid-12th cen­tury. In order to adequately present this pre­cious rel­ic, vari­ous reliquar­ies have been commissioned. 

…of a cru­ci­fix­ion with his head point­ing down­wards (like St. Peter's), about him being dumped and drowned in the ocean

I'd like to briefly dis­cuss two of them. Franz Ignaz Berdold, a gold­smith from Augs­burg, cre­ated a reliquary bust in his work­shop that is dated circa 1727. In a front­al per­spect­ive, we are presen­ted with the ascet­ic head of a bearded man with head hair hanging down onto his shoulders in gentle curls. His neck and chest are of mus­cu­lar com­plex­ion and have been shaped with great plas­ti­city. His fig­ure is accom­pan­ied by some sort of cloth that is draped over his shoulders and gives the bot­tom of the bust calm, cohes­ive con­tours. It is a so-called ›speak­ing reliquary‹, as its form hints at that which is stored with­in it. Berdold's baroque bust dram­at­izes the beauty of the human body and thus cre­ates a cli­mactic ten­sion between the beauty of cre­ated things and the vile cruelty inflic­ted upon it by hea­then hench­men. Espe­cially, by the way, the drapery is remin­is­cent of the her­oes, demi­gods, and gods of the clas­sic­al period. 

The second reliquary, I'd like to dis­cuss at this point, was cre­ated in 1929 by the Frank­furt-based gold­smith Karl Bor­romäus Ber­thold and was made using gil­ded sil­ver and vari­ous gem­stones. The object should be viewed in the con­text of the arts and crafts move­ment that star­ted with the Jugend­stil move­ment. The reliquary rises from its tiered base, upon which a tri­an­gu­lar shrine is placed. The gen­er­al form, of course, is heav­ily indebted to Expres­sion­ism and bears rem­nants of a late neo-Goth­ic style. Three column-like berg-crys­tals are moun­ted to the steps on each side lead­ing up to the gable of the tri­an­gu­lar cap­sule, above which a pol­ished Cross is tower­ing, also made of dia­phan­ous berg-crys­tal. The entire shrine is uni­fied by the man­dorla (or almond shaped) aure­ole, arch­ing over the reliquary. Around the base we read on the frieze: »SANC­TE + BAR­TO­LO­MAEE / PAT­RONE + ET / PRO­TECT­OR + NOS­TER / ORA PRO NOBIS«. I think it is quite appar­ent that both reliquar­ies are cent­ral­iz­ing the holi­ness of the mar­tyr, not his suffering.
The over­whelm­ing major­ity of the 33 depic­tions of St. Bartho­lomew, scattered through­out the build­ing, fol­low the rationale just men­tioned. The great mon­strance with its spiry archi­tec­tur­al form (ca. 1498) shows a little sil­ver fig­ure of the apostle, hold­ing a knife in the right hand. The little fig­ure, clearly depic­ted with a halo, is exal­ted bey­ond its tem­por­al suf­fer­ing and is hold­ing a book in his left hand. Anoth­er object, a clasp or pec­tor­ale, designed to hold litur­gic­al vest­ments in place, shows the saint with his skin draped over his slightly bent arm.

Let us exam­ine this form a bit closer: St. Bartho­lomew with his skin draped over his arm, boast­ing the knife that was the instru­ment of his suf­fer­ing. It is repeated often through­out the cathed­ral – for instance in the oak carving on the choir stalls (ca. 1352), or in the col­or­ful sand­stone sculp­ture moun­ted on the north­ern wall of the choir (ca. 1440), or on the plate of the cap­stone that con­cludes one of the west­ern vaults in the Wahlkapelle (Elec­tion Chapel, ca. 1425 – 1438). In addi­tion, we find this tri­umphant form of St. Bartho­lomew, the saint who nev­er seemed to be harmed by mar­tyr­dom, on vari­ous altars along the tran­sept: the relief fig­ure on the left wing of the Sac­red Heart Altar (Mem­min­gen, ca. 1505), for instance, or the sculp­ture in the crown­ing wood­work above the Altar of Our Lady (Swa­bia, ca. 1500).

But it is the fam­ous St. Bartho­lomew frieze that cov­ers most of the south­ern and north­ern walls of the choir which gives a most glor­i­fied account of the martyr's fate and tri­umph. The style and mode of nar­rat­ive adop­ted in the 28 large-scale scenes of the frieze cel­eb­rates his holi­ness and medi­aev­al Christianity's later per­cep­tion of hav­ing attained ulti­mate vic­tory over hea­then­dom. The frieze fol­lows the ›Legenda aurea‹, as is appar­ent in dress­ing St. Bartho­lomew in a white robe. The secco paint­ing with tem­pera was com­mis­sioned in early 15th cen­tury on the account of a dona­tion made to the chapter. It offers a nar­rat­ive that begins with St. Bartho­lomew being sent out to the spread the gos­pel along with the oth­er apostles and ends with a hea­then prince being made bish­op, after he con­ver­ted to Chris­tian­ity. The frieze is essen­tially about the ori­gin of the Church. It also, one might add, already pre­sup­poses the concept of dis­ciple­ship, too, which is per­haps an unwar­ran­ted, even hasty claim, as we shall see. It looks like most of these prom­in­ent depic­tions are much more con­cerned with the Church than with Christ. One might argue at this point, »Of course these depic­tions are pre­dom­in­antly con­cerned with the Church, but not because they are ignor­ant of Christ, but because they are Cath­ol­ic «. I think arguing like this would be cynical.

Take, for instance, Oswald Ongher's oil paint­ing ›Agony of St. Bartho­lomew‹ (ca. 1670) that is moun­ted on the west­ern wall of the north­ern aisle. In the middle of the pic­ture we see Bartho­lomew lean­ing against a tree, merely dressed in a waist­cloth. He is exhausted. One of the three hench­men sur­round­ing him has evid­ently tied him to that tree. Hold­ing a knife in his mouth, we see anoth­er hench­man to the right. He is just pulling off Bartholomew's skin. He has already done so on both arms. We see the mal­treated muscle parts, the blood trick­ling down from his armpit. In front of that group, we see anoth­er fig­ure in the fore­ground adorned with feath­ers, a sign of his hea­then nature. He is run­ning his blade across the sharpen­ing steel. In the right corner, in the back­ground of the pic­ture, we see Astyages, the broth­er to the hea­then king, dec­or­ated with laurels watch­ing with his sol­diers. The pain­ing, the only sur­viv­ing frag­ment of a Baroque altar des­troyed in aer­i­al bom­bard­ments dur­ing World War II, con­trasts Bartho­lomew endur­ing his agony with the sar­don­ic cruelty, glee, and cyn­icism of the three under­lings of Astyages (him­self only broth­er of a king) tor­ment­ing the unknow­ing, unas­sum­ing, patiently endur­ing man of whom we will real­ize that he was a saint.
This is the vis­ion that Aris Kala­izis will carry forth and devel­op in his inter­pret­a­tion of Bartholomew's mar­tyr­dom. While Bartho­lomew is often found in reli­gious art stand­ing, his skin draped over his arm, it is neces­sary to real­ize the ex post facto depic­tions, show­ing the saint in his saint­hood, is some­what anti­cli­mactic. Ongher and Kala­izis point at anoth­er tra­di­tion of look­ing at saintly faith: a pain­ful mode of faith, a faith that has retrained a sense of the for­lorn tragedy that is the actu­al hori­zon of suf­fer­ing. Con­sider, for instance, the paint­ing of St. Bartho­lomew (1617) by the Baroque paint­er Jusepe de Rib­era. The pic­ture today is on dis­play at the Pra­do in Mad­rid. Bartho­lomew is sus­pen­ded from a hanging wooden beam like a sail, while the hench­men are get­ting ready to inflict their agony upon him. Also, con­sider the medi­ev­al Welt­gericht­sal­tar (Judg­ment Day Altar) at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum by Stefan Lochner.

…no trace of good news

Nowhere a sign of grace. No trace of good news. There are no acts of char­ity: nobody walks again, sees again. Nobody is being fed. Nobody is being found or saved or restored to life. No one is walk­ing across waters. The king­dom, lost. The heav­ens, empty. And if we take to heart what is actu­ally hap­pen­ing in this scene here, if we look at what human beings are inflict­ing upon their fel­low creature, then there really isn’t any cred­ible evid­ence for glad tid­ings of joy. Noth­ing in this scene seems to cor­rob­or­ate the gospel's mes­sage of hope.

Of course, it is bewil­der­ing to look at this paint­ing without activ­at­ing the cul­tur­al inform­a­tion stored in the back of our brains. Because the evan­gel­ists assure us: his name was Bartho­lomew. He was an apostle, one of the Twelve. Lore tells us: he was in India or Per­sia or Armenia – where he met Death. But we should be cau­tious, for Aris Kala­izis isn’t going to do us a favor. We can­not step in front of this paint­ing pleased with all our enlightened know­ledge, ready to rel­ish an aes­thet­ic bon­bon. We can­not come, as though naïve, as though guile­less, as though inno­cent, respect­able, know­ing — as though unblem­ished. This is not a paint­ing that bathes us in sun­light: it is not a paint­ing that will mir­ror our sophistication.
This is ground zero. He failed. He died. Church tra­di­tion, which is always so quick with its armory of ter­min­o­logy, rashly calls his fate mar­tyr­dom. Mar­tyr­dom, as though there were no ques­tion about it. Mar­tyr­dom — a mere lex­ic­al item, a term, a word. But what's a word after all? We need to be very clear: here we have got a mis­sion­ary — a believ­er — shown in the moment of his total fail­ure. He is ship­wrecked. Whatever his inten­tions, they are burn­ing and crash­ing. Whatever he wished to bring to these wit­less hea­thens, it only had a slim chance any­way, it was hanging by a thread, and the hench­men are put­ting their knife's blade to that thread. Now, they are cut­ting through, sever­ing it. It's over.
And doesn’t this ver­sion of the story or this emphas­is, doesn’t it unmask those tri­umphant depic­tions, I dis­cussed above, those depic­tions … so hand­somely strewn about in the dainty bliss­ful domin­ion of Frankfurt's prin­cip­al Cathed­ral? Doesn’t this tri­umphant pose sud­denly seem a bit com­pla­cent? We have it made. We're saved. Doesn’t this depic­tion of mar­tyr­dom seem like an impot­ent, stub­born stance against an ignor­ant, viol­ent, ulti­mately adverse world? So what does it mean to »own« a rel­ic of a saint, any­way? Or, for that mat­ter, what does it mean to pos­sess the story of a saint's life? Or to »dec­or­ate« our hal­lowed walls with a paint­ing or a sculp­ture of a saint? Is the rel­ic the ulti­mate gim­mick, the proof that it is all true: a frag­ment of a man's skull? Does it testi­fy to everything? That it all went well in the end. That it's all good. That we may rest assured. That we may be bliss­ful. That we may believe. Amen?

…will hap­pen upon some token of hope

There is some­thing amiss. For when we read in the Life of St. Bartho­lomew care­fully, we encounter some­thing strange in the ›Legenda aurea‹. At one point, it says: »There is no con­sensus of opin­ion with respect to the way in which Saint Bartho­lomew was martyred«.
Aris Kala­izis will not flat­ter the Church with anoth­er glor­i­ous depic­tion of one of her mar­tyrs. When we turn to his earli­er paint­ings, we will search in vain for a redeemed world. On the con­trary, we will see broken down walls, exploited land­scapes, or aban­doned build­ings can­vas after can­vas. We will wit­ness dis­turb­ing scenes of destruc­tion, des­ol­ate, utterly broken situations. 
Here or there, per­haps, we will hap­pen upon some token of hope, as in the col­ors com­ing through the dark tumor­ous clouds mak­ing up the hori­zon shown in this paint­ing. Nev­er­the­less, hope in his paint­ings is bit­ter. It isn’t some sort of romantic, kitschy, kow­tow­ing hope handed out by those in the know. Instead, it is hope that is hard to bear. Because maybe what you are see­ing on the hori­zon isn’t a rosy-fingered dawn, but the last flashes of light in the off­ing before the night.
Double-binds: erro­neous mes­sages in the face of truth, true mes­sages in the face of error. Uncer­tainty. Bit­ter­ness. Hope that is hard to bear, des­pite the knife in your flesh. Affirm­a­tion even at ground zero, in the face of abso­lute noth­ing­ness and fail­ure, suf­fer­ing in the face of and because of that God who loves you. Zero con­sol­a­tion. None. Nowhere. So, actu­ally it is perverse.

…this paint­ing is presen­ted in the Imper­i­al Cathed­ral in Frank­furt, only about 200 meters away from the Römer­berg where the Nazis burned books in 1933

Mark care­fully: what we are look­ing at, is sheer per­versity. We are tak­ing the stable ground away from our tra­di­tion, and we are repla­cing it with a double bot­tom. It is an unbe­liev­ably per­verse, imper­tin­ent vis­ion of hope. This is its emin­ent great­ness. Its bam­booz­ling real­ism. I will come back to this point at the end of this essay. The great­ness in the vis­ion of Aris Kala­izis is this: he has under­stood that the world is forever unfinished.
The Mar­tyr­dom of Saint Bartho­lomew: faith as uncer­ti­tude. Remem­ber, the ›Legenda aurea‹ at one point says: »There is no con­sensus of opin­ion with respect to the way in which Saint Bartho­lomew was mar­tyred«. This paint­ing offers us vari­ous inter­pret­a­tions also found in the vari­ous accounts that relate the Life of St. Bartho­lomew, the Vitae. Cru­ci­fied head down. Skinned. Beaten. 
But per­haps los­ing his life isn’t the most ter­rible aspect of his agony. Isn’t burn­ing the book and the news that it entails far more ter­rible, unbear­able indeed, than dying? Holo­caust, burnt whole. This paint­ing is presen­ted in the Imper­i­al Cathed­ral in Frank­furt, only about 200 meters away from the Römer­berg where the Nazis burned books in 1933.
Or: take a look at the ruined church in the middle of the pic­ture. The ruined edi­fice does indeed exist, on the out­skirts of Leipzig, in a vil­lage named Wachau. The church in Wachau was ruined dur­ing the bom­bard­ment of Leipzig in World War II and later neg­lected by the com­mun­ist régime. The archi­tect of the eccle­si­ast­ic­al struc­ture was Con­stantin Lip­si­us, a fam­ous Sax­on archi­tect of the late 19th cen­tury. Lip­si­us, how­ever, did not only build churches, but also the Academy of Visu­al Arts in Leipzig, which is now the pres­ti­gi­ous Hoch­schule für Grafik und Buchkunst.

Aris Kalaizis, Detail: The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew or the double Martyrdom
Aris Kalaizis, Detail: The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew or the double Martyrdom

Is hope jus­ti­fied? Maybe. Maybe not. Real­ity has more ambi­gu­ity than you can stand. And there now, in that moment, when all seems lost, one of the hench­men breaks loose — breaks out of his role, grabs the book, and turns his back on this hor­rif­ic situ­ation. He steps into the sea and raises the burn­ing book, towards whatever is in the back­ground of this paint­ing. But: we do not know if it is his mock­ery of the gos­pel, his final ridicul­ing of Bartholomew's book; we don’t know if he is revolt­ing against it in an act of grot­esque neg­a­tion. Or is he revolt­ing against the enorm­ous neg­a­tion that is dom­in­at­ing the picture?
There it is. Now, we may see it. We are look­ing right at it, the bit­terly unde­cided, ambigu­ous, because forever incom­plete hope, of which nobody actu­ally could say if the man hold­ing the burn­ing book is prais­ing or ridicul­ing hope. We do not know if he is rais­ing it towards a rosy-fingered dawn or towards a twi­light fore­shad­ow­ing some ter­rible, infernal night. We do not know if this paint­ing is about God or about art. We do not know if this paint­ing is about evil or about sal­va­tion. Everything is left open, unde­cided and appallingly ambigu­ous. Noth­ing can be said with cer­tainty, and this is, to say the least, utterly unbearable.

…Faith as an uncer­tainty. This is more an agnost­ic and no athe­ist­ic beginning

Per­haps, this is the point, at which we might under­stand why it isn’t enough to have faith in what is shown by the frieze in the cathedral's choir. The St. Bartho­lomew frieze alone isn’t enough. We shouldn’t accept its appar­ent unam­bi­gu­ity, its sup­posed clar­ity and per­spicu­ity, for we must look at the moment of neg­a­tion, noth­ing has been estab­lished, and noth­ing has been achieved, all is at per­il, always. 
The only thing we have is art that is art before the estab­lish­ment of all academies; all we have faith that pre­cedes all mater­i­al struc­tures of its insti­tu­tions. We have a burn­ing book, held into uncer­tainty — ambigu­ous, dark, sear­ing, and utterly unbear­able. We have the revolt of unde­cided mean­ing, the uproar and clam­or of bit­ter hope that runs hotly through our veins, before even one altar has been con­sec­rated that may impart the word ›mar­tyr­dom‹ upon us.

It seems unbear­able that the church, in the back­ground of this scene of extreme viol­ence, is left in ruins. It seems unbear­able that the hench­men, to whom Bartho­lomew wanted to bring Good News and whom he wanted to bring togeth­er as a church, are reject­ing him. We know the mat­rix for this type of rejec­tion. But who­ever says a con­sol­ing word of recon­cili­ation now, is a liar. It isn’t easy to kneel in Gethsemane.
But whatever is on the rocks here, whatever is at per­il here, is not the church, not an academy, not this or that mar­tyr or artist, but what is on the rocks, what is hanging on a thread, is the advent of good news. What is at per­il, is the pos­sib­il­ity to wring hope from all of this in the face of annihilation.

Paul-Henri Campbell (2013)
Paul-Henri Campbell (2013)

©2015 Paul-Henri Camp­bell | Aris Kalaizis

Paul-Henri Camp­bell was born 1982 in Boston.The Ger­man-Amer­ic­an author stud­ied Clas­sic­al Greek and Roman Cath­ol­ic Theo­logy at the Nation­al Uni­ver­sity of Ire­land and at the Goethe-Uni­ver­sity in Frank­furt am Main, Ger­many. Cur­rently, he is com­plet­ing his PhD at the Jesuit Col­lege Sankt Geor­gen in Frank­furt am Main. He writes poetry and prose in Ger­man and Eng­lish. Since March 2013, he is a mem­ber of the edit­or­i­al board of one of largest poetry magazines in the Ger­man lan­guage, DAS GEDI­CHT. Pub­lic­a­tions include ›mein­wahn­straße‹ (2011); and three books of Eng­lish and Ger­man poetry: ›duk­tus oprandi‹ (2010), ›Space Race‹ (2012), and ›Am Ende der Zei­len. Gedichte/​Poems‹ (2013).

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