A popular subject in Counter–Reformation Italy and Spain, Ribera's profoundly moving work portrays the apostle's final moments before he is to be flayed alive. The viewer is meant to empathize with Bartholomew, whose body seemingly bursts through the surface of the canvas, and whose outstretched arms embrace a mystical light that illuminates his flesh. His piercing eyes, open mouth, and petitioning left hand bespeak an intense communion with the divine; yet this same hand draws our attention to the instruments of his torture, symbolically positioned in the shape of a cross. Transfixed by Bartholomew's active faith, the executioner seems to have stopped short in his actions, and his furrowed brow and partially illuminated face suggest a moment of doubt, with the possibility of conversion.
The use of sharp light–dark contrasts and extreme naturalism reveal the influence of Caravaggio, whose work Ribera would have seen both in Rome and in Naples, where he lived from 1616 until the end of his life. Yet unlike Caravaggio, Ribera has enlivened the canvas with a variety of brushstrokes and textures, allowing the viewer to become further involved with this psychologically charged painting.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication Italian Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, which is available as a free PDF https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/italian-paintings-17th-and-18th-centuries.pdf