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.

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

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 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.

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

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. 

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
Apse Mosaic from Santa Maria Maggiore
Italian, 1296
Rome, Church of Santa Maria Maggiore

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

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

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

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, 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, ca. 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
Interstingly, 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.
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.

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