The London Art Traveller Damien Hirst’s Exquisite Pain at St Bartholomew the Great
Following on from the Titian exhibition at the National Gallery, I turn my attention to the sculpture, by Damien Hirst, of Saint Bartholomew, a saint who was reportedly flayed alive. The piece, called Exquisite Pain (made 2006), sits in the 12th-century magnificence of Saint Bartholomew’s, the great church in Smithfield, London.
What is the connexion between Titian and Damien Hirst here? Well one of Titian’s most fascinating paintings, which was not part of the ‘Titian: Love Desire And Death’ exhibition, is Titian’s Flaying Of Marsyas, which is in the collection at Museum Kroměříž, Archbishopric Castle Kroměříž in Czechia.
This painting is in the tradition of Titian’s Poesies, the mythological paintings he did towards the end of his life. However, it is very different from the paintings that he did for Phillip of Spain, which I discussed in my previous post. Marsyas is a much darker picture, and it shows the satyr Marsyas being flayed alive by the God Apollo. According to the myth, Marsyas had the hubris to challenge Apollo, who was God of music as well as many other things. Apollo was particularly offended.
I had been hoping that Marsyas might be in the current Titian show but was disappointed. I do want to go and see it again, so it looks like I’m going to have to make that trek to Czechia, which brings us to Damien Hirst. Best known as the enfant terrible of the 90’s YBA (Young British Artists) movement, his work is mostly known for extremism and bling, and only very occasionally for being thoughtful and exquisite. I think I’ve seen very few of his works, which I would consider exquisite, although more than one of them is reasonably thoughtful.
I have never really been a massive fan of Damien Hirst, but upon reflection, I do – almost despite myself – actually like him. It’s almost uncool to say that you appreciate Damien Hirst, and there are a lot of things I don’t like about his work, particularly his use of butterflies. But some of his art just really stand out as being emphatic and challenging and punchy and worthwhile. His St Bartholomew is one of these works. It also has the advantage of being not only exquisite but beautiful.
Damien Hirst’s reputation for wild living and some of the gaudiness and crassness of some of his art (and crassness of some of the collectors who hoover it up) belies the fact that there is often quite a profound metaphysical question embedded in many of his works. Questions about the nature of being and about mortality run as a thread throughout his works. One of Hirst’s most exciting and darkest pieces I’ve ever seen is a short video where he – jolly and charismatic – explains the best way to shoot yourself in the head. It’s a very early piece; I think he wasn’t long out of art school when he made it. I saw it in an exhibition, and it affected me. Firstly, it is a concise example of compelling and successful ‘video art’; secondly, it really made me think. Because of this sort of almost casual profundity, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Hirst even when some of his work enraged me.
A little bit of background on Saint Bartholomew
As a very lapsed Catholic, I’m fascinated by Saints, but I don’t know that much about them, so I can’t promise anything I say here coheres with Christian doctrine. Bartholomew was one of Christ’s disciples, one of the 12 apostles who were with him Jane the crucifixion and witnessed the Ascension. After the Ascension, Bartholomew travelled to India and then Armenia as a missionary preaching the gospel. At some point, he fell foul of the authorities. He was executed in Armenia, though unsurprisingly, there is absolutely no record of him nor of anybody being flayed alive for religious reasons in that region. Anyway, whether it’s true or not (and I think we have to take the stories of the Saints with a hefty pinch of salt), it did leave us with a particularly gruesome image that has been replicated in art many times: a man flayed alive.
As we’ve seen, flaying, although not particularly common, is featured in the Marsyas myth and was depicted by Titian. However, Titian’s picture of the satyr is very much more of an alchemical image based on esoterica, magic and the occult than the overtly Christian imagery surrounding Bartholomew. More on flaying – which is fascinating as well as horrid is here.
Yet skin was often a magic ingredient, and so it’s not wholly outrageous to wonder whether or not there’s something esoteric about the familiar image of Bartholomew: the living man standing with all of his muscles and viscera exposed, holding his skin. If we want to read it as symbolic, we could say that the skin simply represents the outer part of the person; once you remove that and you expose yourself entirely to God (or to oneself), then certainly change takes place.
Tom Bissell discusses the potentially esoteric aspects of Bartholomew’s story:
“the apocryphal literature involving Bartholomew is highly peculiar: one episode consists of the apostle learning secret cosmic knowledge from Mary the mother of Jesus, despite her warning that to disclose this information will destroy the world; another work, attributed to Bartholomew, has Jesus battling the six serpent sons of Death; another, The Acts of Philip, in which Bartholomew co-stars, features the apostles coming across a talking baby goat and leopard, who adorably take Communion together; yet another appears to involve, of all things, a werewolf.” 
Saint Bartholomew the Great
Saint Bartholomew the Great is a stunning, ancient church in London’s historic Smithfield district. Also known as Great St Bart’s, it is a medieval church (founded 1123) in Smithfield within the City of London. It was founded as an Augustinian priory and adjoined St Bartholomew’s Hospital of the same foundation.* Initially, of course, a Catholic institution, it was reformed under Henry VIII, when the Priory was dissolved. It became an essential local church, and this was when it acquired its half-timbered Tudor frontage built upon the original stone arch.
In the 18th century, the church fell into disrepair and bits of it were used for commercial purposes. An interesting bit of history is that Benjamin Franklin worked in the printer’s shop there.
The church is very atmospheric, and although not all of it is 13th century because it has been restored several times, there’s enough sense of its ancient origins and splendid architecture to create a compelling mood as you wander through the building.
Hirst’s sculpture is installed in a dark recess. You can walk around it completely and marvel at how beautifully it seems to emanate light. Hirst points out on his website there’s almost a sense in which Bartholomew’s situation seems self-inflicted in a way that is both tragic and determined; this take on the legend brings us right back to Hirst’s old video about how to shoot yourself in the head. There is a sort of black humour in it, but also an acknowledgement that we humans are a species which is both life-loving and self-destructive, and somehow we managed to we both had the same time. Exquisite Pain reminds us of that but also shows us how capable we are of beauty.
Exquisite Pain is free to see at St Bartholomew the Great Nearest Tube Farringdon, Barbican St Paul’s.
*If you go after Corona, do visit the Barts Hospital site and see the small medical museum and the fabulous exteriors.
Exquisite Pain is one of two Saint Bartholomews that Hirst made; the other is at Chatsworth House, but it’s outdoors and is not gilded.
 Tom Bissell on St Bartholomew of legend, Lapham’s Quarterly A Most Violent Martyrdom