Under the Fig Tree with St. Bartholomew

This is a reflection on St. Bartholomew the Apostle inspired by the oil painting of Fr. George Leonard Shultz (1869 – 1971). A shorter version of this reflection was published in the Times-Standard on September 5, 2020: “Under the Fig Tree with St. Bartholomew”

Following the Western Church’s Calendar of Saints, Episcopalians celebrate the feast of St. Bartholomew on August 24th. This apostle is associated with the symbol of a knife since, according to legend, he was flayed alive in Armenia, where he converted King Polymios to Christianity and thus aroused the violent anger of the king’s brother Astyages, who ordered his execution. In the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo portrays Bartholomew holding a knife in one hand and his own flayed skin in the other; and Renaissance artist Marco d’Agrate created a sculpture of the saint flayed.

There is another artistic portrayal of St. Bartholomew that will hopefully find its home at Christ Church Eureka in the coming months. It is a life-size painting of the apostle by Fr. George Shultz (1896-1971) who served as an Episcopal priest at Christ Church during some summers in the 1960s when Bishop Jack Thompson was on vacation. Affectionately known as “Father Shag,” he was from Missouri and served at several Episcopal parishes in Oklahoma. Although the hand-carved frame of his portrait includes a flaying knife, the painting itself presents the apostle still clothed comfortably in his skin.

In the portrait, Fr. Shultz refers to Bartholomew as Nathanael, which was likely the apostle’s first name, while “Bartholomew” (Son of Tolmai) was his surname. In the Gospel of John, Jesus described Nathanael as a true descendant of Jacob in whom there is no deceit. According to Herbert Lockyer (whom Fr. Shultz was reading), “Nathanael was like the patriarch Jacob in that he was a very prince of God in devotional life, but, unlike Jacob, he had not a trace of cunning or deceit in his nature.” In the painting, Nathanael is dressed like a prince with a purple and bejeweled cape, standing upright and beaming with sincerity. Based on Lockyer’s reading of John 1:43-51, Nathanael may have been studying the Torah under a fig tree, when he experienced a kind of “holy tryst” with the divine, not unlike Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven (Gen 28:10-17). Jesus, who was miraculously privy to Nathanael’s mystical experience, promised him that he would later see the heavens open with angels ascending and descending right before his very eyes. This is why Fr. Shultz portrays Nathanael under a fig tree, holding a book closely to his chest. The fig tree was intimately connected with Nathanael’s realization of Christ’s divinity, a realization that later compelled him to share the love of God with the people of India, where I imagine his story resonated with that of the Buddha, who attained a different kind of enlightenment under a fig tree.

Not only does the life and witness of Nathanael Bar Tolmai invite us to fearlessly pursue truth for the sake of God’s love, I believe he also invites us to go grab a book, sit under a shady tree, and remain open to the possibility of angels; and to discover our own identity as a beloved prince or princess of a God who looks upon our true selves with joyful affection.

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