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
A few weeks ago I happened to meet 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 and 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.
In the coming days I will 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
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. 

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