Thursday, March 27, 2014

Man or Woman 2: John the Evangelist or Mary Magdalene? – Images of John as Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist
Enamel plaque
French (Limoges), 1175-1200
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The best starting point to find the true iconography of St. John the Evangelist is the way in which he is portrayed purely as an evangelist. In these images there can be no confusion of identities of male or female that might appear in other contexts.

 Evangelist portraits appear most prominently in manuscripts of the Gospels that pre-date the year 1000, especially in the great “luxury” codices 1 produced by the artists that served the Carolingian court in the 9th century AD.  While there may have been similar images that appeared in other art forms, only those in the manuscripts and similar small, precious objects have survived the centuries.

St. John the Evangelist from Harley Codex Aureus
German (Aachen), 800-825
London, British Library
MS Harley 2788, fol. 161v

These images have their deep roots in author portraits that appeared frequently in pre-Christian works as the first image in a scroll or codex. With the appearance of the codex form it became logical to begin each of the four Gospel books with a “portrait” of its author. Thus we see portraits of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John at the points at which their respective Gospels begin. Generally speaking, they are placed on the left hand page (the verso page, in manuscript terminology), facing the opening page of their respective Gospels.

St. John the Evangelist from Codex Aureus of Lorsch
German (Lorsch), Before 814
Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
MS, fol.67v

St. John the Evangelist from the Ebbo Gospels
French (Rheims), 816-841
Epernay, Bibliotheque Municipale
MS 1, fol. 135v
Here John is shown as a bearded elder and, unusually, is shown writing on a scroll instead 
of the newer book form of codex.

They are usually shown either in the act of writing their Gospel account or holding a codex (book) that represents it. In addition, they are frequently accompanied by their symbol. These symbols are based on the image of the four living creatures that support the throne of God as described in both the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:5-26) and the New Testament Book of Revelations (Revelation 4:6-8). The symbol associated with St. John as evangelist is the eagle.

In these “portraits” we can see that there is no particular defined image of St. John. He is shown as a young, beardless man in some and as an aged, bearded figure in others.

In the “insular” style of painting, found in Ireland and parts of Britain under Irish influence, the image is highly abstract,

St. John the Evangelist from Book of Kells
Irish (Iona or Kells), ca. 800
Dublin, Trinity College Library
MS 58, fol. 291v

St. John the Evangelist from the Book of Mulling
Irish, ca. 800
Dublin, Trinity College Library
MS 60, fol. 193v

while in the images produced under the influence of the Carolingian court (Charlemagne and his immediate descendents and their circle) the images hark back to classical, late antique figures.

Ivory plaque of St. John the Evangelist
German (Aachen), 9th century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters Collection

The Four Evangelists from the Aachen Treasury Gospels
German (Ada School), ca. 820
Aachen, Cathedreal Schatzkammer
Fol. 13r
Here St. John the Evangelist is shown as a bearded young man, accompanied by the eagle, his symbol.  However, two of the other evangelists, Mark and Luke, who are usually
portrayed as older, bearded, men are here depicted as young and beardless as well. 

St. John the Evangelist in an enamel plaque
German (Rhine Valley), ca.  1175-1200
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
On this plaque John is not only named, but the words he is shown to have written are the opening words of the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the word"

By the middle of the twelfth century, however, the image of the beardless (or nearly beardless) young man has become the dominant image of St. John as evangelist and remains so from then on. 

Jacopo Torritti, Sts. John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and Anthony
Italian, 1296
Rome, Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Apse Mosaic

St. John on Patmos
From Biblie historiale of Girard des Moulins
French,  beginning of the 15th century
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
MS Arsenal 5058, fol. 558

Further, the image of St. John as evangelist now appears in other media than the manuscript. 

Luca Signorelli, The Apostles Peter and John
Italian, 1477-1482
Loreto, Basilica of the Santa Casa

Hieronymous Bosch, St. John on Patmos
Netherlandish, 1504-1505
Berlin, Staatliche Museen

Fra Bartolomeo, Vision of St. Bernard with
Sts. Benedict and John the Evangelist
Italian, 1504
Florence, Uffizi

Albrecht Duerer, Four Holy Men
(Sts. John the Evangelist, Peter, Mark and Paul)
German, 1526
Munich, Alte Pinakothek

Dominichino, Madonna and Child with Sts. John the Evangelist and Petronius
Italian, 1629
Rome, Galleria Nazionale dell'Arte Antica
Here the figure of St. John is definitively identified by the pen and book, the eagle (embraced by a putto at the bottom right) and the poisoned chalice (held by another putto above St. John's right hand) which we will explore in another article.

Francesco Furini, St. John the Evangelist
Italian, 1630s
Lyons, Musee des Beaux-Arts

Matthias Stomer, St. John the Evangelist
Dutch, 1640s
Rennes, Musee des Beaux-Arts

Alonso Cano, St. John the Evangelist
Spanish, 1646-1650
Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts

Camillo Rusconi, St. John the Evangelist
Italian, c. 1714-1718
Rome, Basilica of St. John Lateran

The few exceptions prove the rule. One interesting group is the series of frescoes in vaults that were produced by a series of Florentine artists from the mid-fifteenth to early sixteenth centuries.

Andrea del Castagno, St. John the Evangelist
Italian, 1542
Venice, Church of San Zaccaria, San Tarasio Chapel

Here St. John is shown as a bearded ancient, while at the same time, in other contexts and media, he was most prominently shown as the young, beardless man of a longstanding tradition.

Fra Angelico, Four Evangelists
Italian, 1447-1449
Vatican City, St. Nicholas Chapel

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Four Evangelists
Italian, 1485-1490
Florence, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel

Agnolo Bronzino, Sts. John the Evangelist, Mark, Francis of Assisi and Michael
Italian, c. 1541
Florence, Palazzo Vecchio, Chapel of Eleonora de Toledo

But, artists are always free to use either image, as two works by the sculptor, Alessandro Algardi, testify.  One is a full-length statue showing the beardless young man,

Alessandro Algardi, St. John the Evangelist
Italian, 1629
Rome, Church of San Silvestro in Capite
Here the figure is identified as St. John by the book, the eagle and the chalice. 

the other is a bust showing a bearded, older man.

Alessandro Algardi, St. John the Evangelist
Italian, 1640-1650
Genoa, Church of SS. Vittore e Carlo
Interestingly, there are no specific attributes of the saint included in this bust.  
The identification is presumably based on the fact that it appears to be the 
pendant (pair) to a bust identified as St. Mary Magdalene.  The pair may
be identical to the two busts mounted on the fluted columns on either side 
of the transept altar in SS. Vittore e Carlo, in which the central image
is the Crucifix.  The identification would then be logical as both figures 
appear as witnesses of the Crucifixion.  See image of the transept altar here.

In conclusion, we can say that, while artists could frequently choose how to imagine St. John the Evangelist in every art historical period, the image that had become the most common by the central middle ages was that of the beardless young man.

© M. Duffy, 2014/2022___________________________________
1. The Codex (plural = codices) is the form of book with which we today are most familiar, a series of leaves bound together along one edge to make a book. This form of book came into existence around the same time as the spread of Christianity. Prior to this the standard book form was the scroll. In the future the standard form is likely to be an electronic version that has some of the characteristics of both the scroll and the codex.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Man or Woman/John the Evangelist or Mary Magdalene? – When Knowledge of Iconography Is Lost

Reproduction of "Last Supper" by Leonardo DaVinci
Marble, ca. 1920
New York, Church of St. Jean Baptiste
Some time ago I happened to run into a friend as she was showing our parish church to her nephew (a young man in his 20s). Our parish has retained its magnificent, original, elaborate altar from before Vatican II and, as is the case with many altars that date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the antependium (the front part of the altar, below the table) contains a replica of Leonardo DaVinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper. Our replica is in the form of a marble relief. Her nephew had a question about this scene, which she told him would best be directed to me. His question was a common but highly contemporary one. “Isn’t the person seated to Jesus’ right hand in this image a woman?”

This question and variations of it are common in the wider contemporary culture, especially following such books/films as The DaVinci Code. The assumption apparently arises because the figure is shown with long hair and a beardless face, amidst all the bearded disciples. Hence, this reasoning suggests, it must be a woman. Further, thanks to the influence of the speculation contained in Dan Brown’s book and other similar works of fiction the reasoning continues, if it is a woman, it must be Mary Magdalene (interestingly never the Virgin Mary, His mother).  
Leonardo DaVinci, Last Supper
Italian, 1498
Milan, Santa Maria delle Grazie
This entire scenario and its wide acceptance points to the disastrous gap that has opened in shared public knowledge regarding images of Christian art during the 20th century and which continues to widen in the 21st. Signs and symbolic references that once were instantly readable by almost everyone in Europe and North America are now as obscure and misunderstood to modern eyes as the hieroglyphs of Egypt were to Europeans prior to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone which made it possible to decipher the ancient writings. It is time to review some of these signs and symbols in the hope of bringing some sanity to the situation.

Enamel Panel, Saint John the Evangelist
German (Rhine Valley), ca.1175-1200
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
John is here identified by name and is shown in the act of writing his Gospel, which begins with the words he has just written "In principio erat verbum"  ("in the beginning was God")

St. John the Evangelist, described in the Gospels as one of the two sons of Zebedee (with his brother John), was one of the Twelve Disciples and also is identified with the writer of the Gospel of John, the most theologically oriented and profound of the Four Gospels, two Epistles and the final book of the Bible, Revelations. He is also described as the “disciple whom Jesus loved".Further, he is one of the three disciples to whom Jesus manifested Himself in the Transfiguration and was the person to whom Jesus specifically commended his mother, Mary, as He hung on the Cross. So, John is no insignificant person and has frequently appeared in Christian art over the centuries. Thus, it is relatively easy to recover his iconography (the ways in which he is imaged).

The settings to which one may look with the expectation of finding images of St. John the Evangelist are numerous. He should appear in:
  • images drawn from the Gospels, including the Crucifixion, the Transfiguration, the Last Supper, and the Agony in the Garden and in images of his calling by Jesus (in company with his brother James
  • in images of his later life, including his sufferings and his later writings.
  • as an evangelist. His evangelist symbol is the eagle, whose presence in an image is a dead giveaway that the person in it is John.
  • in images that include symbols derived from stories of his later life, which we will see later.
Below are links to the essays that examine each of these image categories to determine how John has been shown in art and, finally, how this is reflected in that famous DaVinci painting.

© M. Duffy, 2014/2022
1.  References to the "Beloved Disciple" occur only in the Gospel of John at: 
John 13:23 - at the Last Supper,
John 19:26 - at the foot of the Cross,
John 20:2  -  on the morning of the Resurrection,
John 21:7   - on the seashore at Galilee and
John 21:20  - in a reference made by Peter following the "Feed my sheep" dialogue on the Galilee shore. 

Lent in Rome: The Station Churches

Recently one of the priests in my parish brought my attention to a relatively new book on the subject of the station churches of Rome. It is called Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches and is written by theologian and biographer George Weigel, in collaboration with art historian Elizabeth Lev, with photographs by Weigel’s son, Stephen.

The title reminds us of an ancient practice in Rome, recently revived. In the early and medieval Roman church, the practice developed of a pilgrimage from an assembly church to the station church on each day during Lent. During the move from the church of assembly to the designated church of the day people would pray the litany of the saints. Mass at the station church for the day would be offered as the high point of the pilgrimage.

The practice fell out of use during the period of the Avignon papacy in the fourteenth century. This is the period in which the papacy was hijacked by the French monarchy and was based in Avignon in southern France. Through the hard work of saints such as Catherine of Siena and others Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome in 1377. However, the practice did not resume with this return, although the stations themselves were remembered in the Roman Missal, each day in Lent bearing the notation of the church that had been the station for that particular day.
Crucifixion from Wooden Doors of Santa Sabina, the station
church for the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday.
The doors are 5th century and this image of the Crucifixion is
the earliest known image.
Rome, Santa Sabina, 430-432

It was not until the middle years of the 20th century that interest in resuming this ancient practice revived. According to Weigel, in 1959 Pope John XXIII came to the first station church, Santa Sabina on the Aventine hill, to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. But this action does not appear to have been repeated consistently until the pontificate of Blessed Pope John Paul II and has been continued by his successors. (Below is footage of the event with Pope Francis).

It is also, according to Weigel, a project which has been spurred into revival primarily through the efforts of English speakers, notably the priests and seminarians of the Pontifical North American College of Rome.

Interior of St.John Lateran, the station church for several of the days:  the First Sunday of Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Easter Vigil  and Saturday within the Octave of Easter.   Originally built by Constantine in 324, St. John Lateran is the mother church of Christianity and the cathedral seat of the Popes.

The book is a guide through Lent as well as through the station churches. Weigel’s daily essays focus on reflections based on the readings for each day of Lent. Lev’s short essays focus on elements of the churches and their decoration and are fairly short. Many, though by no means all, of the churches have occasionally featured in this blog (and offer another suggestion for discovery on it). Photographs are primarily in black and white, though there are three short sections of color photographs. This was, I’m sure, a decision that was made with the price of the book in mind. To have produced a book of color photos would have made the cost prohibitive for most individuals. In compensation, I would suggest that those who wish to view color photographs peruse the internet in addition to viewing the photos in the book. Some of the resources that can be used are listed in the Useful Links section of this blog (see tabs are the top of the page).

Story of Joshua, Mosaic from St. Mary Major, the station church for Wednesday of the First Week of Lent and for Wednesday of Holy Week
Rome, Santa Maria Maggiore, ca. early 5th century

Among the most interesting photographs are those taken during the actual station Masses that take place each day of Lent with the participants of the pilgrimage very much in evidence. That too is a very heartening thing to view for participation requires a certain amount of sacrifice on the part of the participants, since it begins each day in pre-dawn late winter darkness.

On the whole the book is a very worthwhile Lenten aid, offering intelligent meditations and a great deal of information on history and art in Rome and its implications for the wider, universal Church.
The book is available in hardcover and also as an ebook from both Amazon and the iTunes store.  I have the hardcover edition, but one can surmise that the ebook version for color readers might be of some value if it permits you to zoom into the photographs.