detail from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment
One of the twelve apostles, according to legend, he was allegedly martyred by being flayed alive. Hence he is the patron saint of butchers and leather-workers and tanners. The painting of St Bartholomew in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment shows Bartholomew holding his own skin. The article at Wikipedia mentions that the cult of Bartholomew began in Avezzano, which was the site of an earlier temple to Heracles, who is usually represented holding the skin of the Nemean lion. So as with many Catholic saints (see St Lucy and St Agatha), symbols associated with the earlier deity are explained by stories about the saint, for instance, the gruesome story of St Bartholomew holding his own skin
It’s less clear why St Bartholomew is also the patron of plasterers. My friend Pandora likes to serve vanilla pudding on his feast day to represent the plaster, although Bartholomew was more usually honored with pork dishes.
His symbol is the butcher’s knife. In Bologna, August 24, is the Feast of the Pig and a pig is carried through the streets, roasted and distributed to the waiting crowds.
There was a famous fair at Smithfield in London on St Bartholomew’s Day, which featured conspicuous consumption of ale and pork. Apparently it was fairly licentious, judging by this statement from Brathwait, Whimzies 117 (1631):
No season through all the yeere accounts hee more subject to abhomination than Bartholomew faire: Their Drums, Hobbihorses, Rattles, Babies, Iewtrumps, nay Pigs and all, are wholly Iudaicall. The very Booths are Brothells of iniquity, and distinguished by the stamp of the Beast.
This was also a day for weather oracles.
If Bartlemas Day be fine and clear
You may hope for a prosperous autumn that year,
Some say he brings in the cooler autumn weather, as in this proverb “St Bartholomew brings the cold dew.” Some say he ends the forty days of rain presaged by a wet St Swithin’s (see July 14).
Attwater, Donald, Dictionary of Saints, Penguin 1965
Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, Morrow 1990
Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 198