Saint Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Christ also known in the Gospel of John as Nathaniel, a native of Cana, who died around the middle of the 1st century, probably in Syria. It is assumed that the name Bartholomew derives from the Aramaic “bar” meaning son, and “talmai” meaning farmer or, according to another version, “tholmai” meaning the one who moves the waters. Bartholomew came to Christ through the Apostle Philip. After the resurrection of Christ, Bartholomew was a travelling preacher in Armenia, India and Mesopotamia. He became famous for his ability to heal the sick and possessed and was condemned to be flayed alive then crucified.
Perhaps the oldest testimony that speaks of the arrival and presence in Lipari of the body of St. Bartholomew is that of St. Gregory of Tours, the bishop and historian who wrote between 572 and 590:
“The story of Bartholomew’s martyrdom tells that he suffered in India. Many years after his martyrdom, after a new persecution against the Christians had occurred, and the pagans seeing that all the people flocked to his tomb and addressed prayers to him and offered incense, seized by hatred, they took his body away and placed it in a lead sarcophagus, kept afloat by the waters that supported him, from that place he was moved to an island called Lipari, and news was sent to the Christians to collect it: and once collected and buried, they built a great church atop it. In this church he is now invoked and appears to aid many people with his virtues and graces”
According to another version, the sarcophagus with the saint’s relics was dragged from the regions of Armenia, with the sarcophagi of four other martyrs also thrown into the sea, who preceded and escorted the Apostle, in a manner of speaking. While sailing, these sarcophagi reached “beyond Sicily, to the island called Lipari, and were discovered by the bishop, the most holy Agatho”.
Even today, in a semi-submerged reef in the bay of Portinenti, on the east coast of the island of Lipari, popular worship identifies the sarcophagus that carried the saint’s body.