Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Man or Woman 3: John the Evangelist or Mary Magdalene? – The Figure With The Chalice

Statue of St. John the Evangelist in alabaster
Southern Netherlands or Northern France, c. 1450-1470
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of the images of St. John the Evangelist that seems to have caused the most confusion in the contemporary mind is that in which the long-haired, beardless saint holds a chalice in his hand.  Some people say this is an image of Mary Magdalene holding the cup in which she caught the blood of Jesus as it dripped from His body on the cross (an incident not found in the Gospels).  Not so, for frequently, if one looks carefully, the cup held by the figure can be seen to contain something besides liquid.  Frequently, it includes the image of a tiny dragon or snake.  What does this mean and whom can it represent?  The answer is St. John the Evangelist.

The image of the saint holding the chalice from which issues a small dragon comes from a legend about St. John that appears to make its first recorded appearance in the late second century apocryphal (i.e., non-canonical) document known as the Acts of John.   This kind of document was fairly common in the centuries immediately following the apostolic age.  During this time many versions of the Christian story were in circulation, some with greater authority than others.  

Eventually, the Church, through a process of discussion and definition, settled by the end of the fourth century on the canonical New Testament that we know today.  Such documents as the Acts of John were largely forgotten until rediscovered in modern times.  They are frequently a mix of legend and fantasy, mixed with some actual historical content. 

Sarum Master, St. John Drinking the Poisoned Chalice
and Death of St. John the Evangelist
England (Salisbury), ca. 1250
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
MS Francais 403, fol. 44v

Although the books themselves were often forgotten, some of the incidents that they recounted entered into the popular culture of Christianity and were carried forward through the centuries.  One of these is the story of St. John and the poisoned chalice.  The account in the Acts of John provides the initial details of the story of what happened, when St. John, brought to Rome to stand trial for his teachings, faced the Roman Emperor Domitian (son of Vespasian and brother of Titus, who reigned from 81-96 AD).

Giovanni di Benedetto and Assistants, St. John the Evangelist Drinking Poison
From a Book of Hours (for use of Friars Minor)
Italian (Milan), c. 1385-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
MS Latin 757, fol. 289v
…Domitian said to him: What is the proof of these things? I am not persuaded by words only; words are a sight of the unseen. What can you show in earth or heaven by the power of him who is destined to reign, as you say. For he will do it, if he is the Son of God. And immediately John asked for a deadly poison. And the king having ordered poison to be given to him, they brought it on the instant. John therefore, having taken it, put it into a large cup, and filled it with water, and mixed it, and cried out with a loud voice, and said: In Your name, Jesus Christ, Son of God, I drink the cup which You will sweeten; and the poison in it do Thou mingle with Your Holy Spirit, and make it become a draught of life and salvation, for the healing of soul and body, for digestion and harmless assimilation, for faith not to be repented of, for an undeniable testimony of death as the cup of thanksgiving. And when he had drunk the cup, those standing beside Domitian expected that he was going to fall to the ground in convulsions. And when John stood, cheerful, and talked with them safe, Domitian was enraged against those who had given the poison, as having spared John.
But they swore by the fortune and health of the king, and said that there could not be a stronger poison than this. And John, understanding what they were whispering to one another, said to the king: Do not take it ill,
Francois and Assistants, St. John the Evangelist Drinks The Poisoned Chalice
From Speculum historiale by Vincent of Beauvais
French (Paris), 1463
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
MS Francais 50, fol. 368

O king, but let a trial be made, and you shall learn the power of the poison. Make some condemned criminal be brought from the prison. And when he had come, John put water into the cup, and swirled it round, and gave it with all the dregs to the condemned criminal. And he, having taken it and drunk, immediately fell down and died.1

Images of this event were, in the Middle Ages, replete with the details of the story, including the addition of a tiny dragon or snake protruding from the chalice to signify the presence of the poison..  The story became one of the incidents that constituted the "martyrdom" of St. John the Evangelist.  John was known to have died a natural death in old age, differing from the deaths of his fellow Apostles.  Pious thought desired to include him among the "white robed army of martyrs"2 and found justification in apocryphal incidents such as this, which could be counted as a form of martyrdom.  We will see additional incidents later.

By the beginning of the Renaissance and into the centuries beyond, the image of St. John holding the chalice became sufficient to remind people of the story.  It became, in effect, as much a symbol of St. John the Evangelist as the eagle or the book.
Jan van Eyck, St. John the Evangelist
Detail from Ghent Altarpiece
Netherlandish, ca. 1432
Ghent, Cathedral of St. Bavo

St.  John the Evangelist
From a Book of Hours
French (Anjou or Brittany), 1440
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 157, fol. 176r

Juan de Juanes, St. John the Evangelist
Spanish, 1445-1450
Private Collection

Hans Memling, St. John the Evangelist
Right wing of the Donne Triptych
Netherlandish, c. 1475
London, National Gallery

El Greco, St. John the Evangelist
Greco-Spanish, 1610-1614
Toledo, Museo de El Greco

Peter Paul Rubens, St. John the Evangelist
Flemish, c. 1610-1612
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Alonso Cano, St. John the Evangelist
Spanish, 1636
Paris, Musee du Louvre

Jean Jouvenet, St. John the Evangelist
French, ca. 1740
Rouen, Musee des Beaux-Arts

Sometimes, all three symbols are included in the same image.
St. John the Evangelist
Stained Glass
French, 15th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jean Bourdichon, St. John the Evangelist
From the Hours of Frederic of Aragon
French (Tours), c. 1501-1504
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
MS Latin 10532, fol. 340

Often the image serves to identify the saint among other saints.

Masters of the Gold Scrolls
Sts. John the Baptist and John the Evangelist
From a Book of Hours (use of Rome)
Netherlandish (Bruges), ca. 1420-1440
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliothek
MS 133D14, fol. 7v

Hans Memling, St. John Altarpiece (central panel)
Netherlandish, 1474-1479
Bruges, Sint-Janshospital, Memlingmuseum

Stained Glass Heraldic Roundel with Saints John the Evangelist and Christina
South Netherlands, c. 1500-1510
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection

Dosso Dossi, Madonna and Child Appearing to Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist
Italian, 1520s
Florence, Uffizi Museum

Jacob Jordaens, Saints Andrew, John the Evangelist and Paul
Flemish, c. 1650-1675
Lille, Musee des Beaux-Arts

Sometimes, the chalice alone is sufficient to remind the viewer of the saint.

Hans Memling, The Poisoned Chalice
detail from the outer panel of Sts. John and Veronica Diptych
Netherlandish, c. 1483
Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art

This was still true during the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, but growing ignorance of Christian symbolism has now opened these images to gross misunderstanding. 
John Flaxman, St. John the Evangelist
Drawing, Brown Wash Over Graphite
English, c. 1811
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

These are NOT images of Mary Magdalene!

© M. Duffy, 2014/2022_____________________________________
1.       Apocryphal Acts of John Translated by Alexander Walker. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.
2.  Quotation from the Te Deum, a hymn of praise to God.  See http://www.ewtn.com/Devotionals/prayers/Te_Deum.htm

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