Friday, April 18, 2014

Man or Woman 5: St. John the Evangelist or Mary Magdalene? – Witnesses to the Crucifixion

Andrea de Firenze, Crucifixion
Italian, 1470-1377
Vatican City, Pinacoteca
“Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala.  When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.”  Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.” (John 19:25-27)

Each of the Gospels provides a listing of the witnesses to the Crucifixion, but only John mentions the presence of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, and “the disciple whom he loved”, who is traditionally believed to be John himself.  Mark (Mark 15:40) and Matthew (Matthew 27:56) give us the names of Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Joseph (or Joses) and another woman who is identified as the mother of the sons of Zebedee by Matthew and as Salome by Mark.  Luke mentions only that “all his acquaintances stood at a distance, including the women who had followed him from Galilee and saw these events” (Luke 23:49).
Yet, it is the description in the Gospel of John that has formed the visual imagery of the Crucifixion, almost from the earliest times.  This may be due to the extra drama introduced by the dialogue between Jesus, Mary and John, in which Jesus, as it were, gives his mother a new son and gives his disciple a second mother.  
Anonymous, Rabula Gospels
Syrian, 586
Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana
MS Plutei 01.56, fol. 13r

It is this trio of Jesus, Mary and John that has formed our core image of the Crucifixion from as early as the sixth century.  In the Rabula Gospels, written in Syria in the late sixth century, we see this already to be true.  Other persons may be included in images of the Crucifixion, but these two figures are always there.  And the figure of John, while unmistakably dressed in male clothing, is always an image of the young, beardless man. 

Pontificale Shirborniensis, Crucifixion
English (Canterbury), 875-900
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 943, fol. 4v

Missale S. Dionysii, Crucifixion
French (Arras), ca. 1050
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9436, fol. 16

Ivory, Crucifixion
Byzantine, ca. 950
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gospel Book, Crucifixion
German (Pruem), ca. 1100-1130
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 17325, fol. 28

Apse Mosaic (detail)
Italian, 1130s
Rome, Basilica of San Clemente

Psalter, Crucifixion
English (possibly London), 1220-1230
New York, Morgan Library
MS G25, fol. 2v

Psalter of St. Louis and Blance of Castille
French, ca. 1225
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 1186, fol. 24

Ivoy Pax, Crucifixion
South German, ca. 1360-1370
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. the Cloisters

Rogier van der Weyden, Crucifxion
Netherlandish, ca. 1460
El Escorial, Monastery of St. Lorenzo

Pietro Perugino, Calitzin Triptych (center)
Italian, 1481-1485
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art

So ubiquitous were these images that nearly every church, even many of the most humble, included a statuary group of three figures, Jesus, Mary and John. 

Choir Screen, Crucifixion
German, ca. 1245
Naumberg, Cathedral

Hans Bol, Francois-Hercule de France
attending Mass from Prayer Book
Belgian (Antwerp), 1582
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 10564, fol. 6v
Here we see a contemporary portrait of the Duke of Alencon, suitor of Elizabeth I,
attending Mass.  In the background we can see an example of a choir screen as it
appeared from inside the choir of the church.

This group might stand at the entrance to the church or atop a screen between the altar area and the nave (called in England a rood screen, from the old English word for cross).  Most were demolished in the Reformation and during subsequent centuries, but some survive in situ and parts of others survive in museums and private collections. 

Anonymous, Mourning Virgin
Austrian (Tyrol), 13th Century
New York, Metropolitan Musuem of Art
Anonymous, St. John the Evangelist
Austrian (Tyrol), 13th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Interestingly, the one person about whose presence there is complete agreement in the Gospels is Mary Magdalene.  Clearly, she was a witness.  However, it is not she who is shown at all times and in all places. Her presence appears primarily in later images of the Crucifixion, apparently beginning in the 14th century.

Giotto, Crucifixion
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Arena Chapel

Duccio, Crucifixion
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

She is clearly distinguished from John whenever she is shown.  John is always shown in relation to the Virgin Mary, either as her exact pendant figure (one on each side of the cross) or as her masculine supporter.  Mary Magdalene is frequently seen only in relation to Jesus.  She is the emotionally reactive figure, kneeling at the foot of the Cross or bewailing the event.  She is usually shown in somewhat more extravagant feminine garb that the usually conservative Virgin.  Also she often, though not always, appears with unveiled hair.  She is very clearly female.  And her femininity reinforces John’s masculinity. 

Jan van Eyck, Crucifixion
Netherlandish, 1420-1425
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Massaccio, Crucifixion
Italian, ca. 1426
Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte

Andrea Mantegna, Crucifixion
Italian, 1457-1459
Paris, Musee du Louvre

Anonymous, Crucifixion from
a Book of Hours
Franch (Paris), 1495-1500
New York, Morgan Library
MS H5, fol. 79r

Matthia Gruenwald, Crucifixion (central panel of the Isenheim Altar)
German, ca. 1515
Colmar, Musee d'Unterlinden

Gerard David, Crucifixion
Flemish, ca. 1515
Berlin, Staatliche Museen

Bernardino Luini, Crucifixion
Italian, ca. 1530
St. Petersberg, Hermitage


El Greco, Crucifixion
Greco-Spanish, 1598-1600
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Simon Vouet, Crucifixion
French, 1622
Genoa, Chiesa del Gesu

Nicolas Tournier, Crucifixion
French, ca. 1635
Paris, Musee du Louvre

Francesco Conti, Crucifixion
Italian, 1709
Florence, Basilica of San Lorenzo
Here the emotions that were building up over several centuries have exploded and St. John,
who  unusually sports a light beard, seems to have been overcome with as much emotion as
Mary Magdalene or the Blessed Virgin.

Constantine Brumidi, Crucifixion
Italian-American, 1870-1880
New York, Church of the Holy Innocents

Salvador Dali, Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus)
Spanish, 1954
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
More a concept than a work of visual storytelling Dali's picture is unusual in including only
the image of Mary Magdalene.

Nothwithstanding a few solitary examples, there is not, nor ever was, any visual confusion that John, a young beardless man, is the primary witness to the Crucifixion, in spite of the fact that the three Synoptic1 Gospels tell a somewhat different story!

© M. Duffy, 2014/2024

1. The Synoptic Gospels are the three Gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark and Luke, which share many of the same stories and other material, as opposed to the very different, more theologically oriented, Gospel of John.

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