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Saint John the Evangelist

Alonso Cano (1601-1667). Musée du Louvre- Paris. 1636.

Imaginary Landscape with John the Evangelist on Patmos

Hans Bol (1534-1593). Mauritshuis – The Hague. 1564.

Saint John raises Drusiana from the Dead
The Martyrdom of Saint John

Filippino Lippi (1457-1504). The Strozzi Chapel, Church of Santa Maria Novella – Florence. Ca. 1502.

John wrote the fourth Gospel and also three Epistles among which the Revelation. John was, with his brother James, the son of Zebedee. Jesus called them ‘Boanerges’ or ‘sons of thunder’ for their fiery temper. Their mother presented them to Jesus and Jesus asked whether they were willing to drink his cup of suffering with him, which they accepted. Maybe because of that vow they were with Peter the witnesses of the strangest and most intimate scenes of Jesus’s Passion, such as the Transfiguration and the Agony in the Garden. John followed Peter on his missions. He seems to have gone to Rome with Peter and suffered under the persecution of the emperor Domitian, but he survived that and lived the rest of his life in Ephesus. According to Saint Jerome, John stayed in Ephesus until extreme old age.

The ‘Golden Legend’ tells of John that he first travelled to Asia and converted many pagans to Christianity. The emperor Domitian summoned him to Rome and had him plunged in a cauldron of boiling oil. But John came out untouched, so the emperor exiled him to the island of Patmos. Many paintings show him thus in the fiery and strange landscape of Patmos writing his Revelation. Somewhat later Domitian was murdered and all his decrees were revoked so that John could return to Ephesus. When he preached in Asia, idol-worshipers stirred up a riot and dragged him to the temple of Diana. John challenged the rioters that if he could destroy the temple they would believe in Jesus Christ. When they consented, the apostle prayed and the temple collapsed. But the high priest Aristodemus was still unsatisfied. He challenged John to drink of his poison. If this would not harm John, Aristodemus would acknowledge that John’s God was the true God. John accepted, but Aristodemus wanted proof of the poison, so he bade the proconsul for two criminals condemned to decapitation. The criminals drank the poison and were killed. Then John drank and he suffered no harm. Aristodemus bade John to resuscitate the two criminals. John gave his cloak to the high priest, telling him to throw it over the corpses. The dead men arose. The ‘Golden Legend’ finishes this story by telling that the high priest now believed in Christ and so did the proconsul. John baptised them all and their families G49 .

Alonso Cano was a sculptor, an architect and a painter of the Spanish seventeenth century, the Golden Age of Spanish pictorial arts. He originated from Granada. Cano was born there in 1601 and he died in his hometown in 1667. He first settled in Sevilla in 1626. He then left in 1638 for the court of Madrid, for which he had already worked before. He was promoted to Painter of the King. He left Madrid in 1664 for Granada again. He had to flee from Madrid because he was accused of having murdered his wife. He became a monk, later a priest and due to his royal protection was appointed as the master architect of the cathedral of Granada. His paintings are in the realist Spanish fashion.

Alonso Cano made a portrait of Saint John the Evangelist around 1636. Many ingredients of the Spanish style of the seventeenth century can be discerned in this picture. The background is dark. Only a slight flame throws the shadow of John on the walls behind. Saint John is in the light. His robe is white as Jesus’s. This strongest possible contrast between white and darkness was much used by the Spanish painters. Yet, they were also fine colourists: look at the light red of John’s cloak that curls around him. John has a gesture of surprise as the vipers curl out of the poisoned chalice. He conjures the snakes. The pose of the figure is moreover quite static as John is seated. Spanish pictures are thus generally static, but slight gestures are always used to express feelings. Saint John is shown as if he were Jesus himself. John’s face could be Jesus’s face, young and noble, and his white robe and red cloak are in the colours usually associated with Jesus. The picture is eminently religious, which is also the predominant theme of the Spanish seventeenth century. It is one of the thousands of pictures of saints that adorned abbeys and churches in Spain.

Hans Bol’s images are very different from Alonso Cano’s. Hans Bol was of the North. He was born in 1534 in Mechelen of Brabant, now Belgium. Brabant belonged in Bol’s painting’s days, after the abdication of Emperor Charles V, to the Spanish Habsburg King. Bol had to leave Mechelen for the Spanish army was breaking the revolt of the Reformation of the Netherlands and the army had brutal success in the Southern Netherlands. Bol went somewhat more North, to Antwerp. He specialised there in miniatures of landscapes, for which he remembered the early Flemish and Walloon landscape painters like Joachim Patenier of Dinant.

Hans Bol’s picture of ‘Saint John on Patmos’ was an occasion for the artist to present an imaginary landscape. John the Evangelist is on the island of Patmos. John is seen on a small promontory in the sea. Huge boulders protect the island from the waves and a hopeful tree grows with full leaves to the skies. Beneath the tree is John with flowing red cloak. His symbol is an eagle and Hans Bol has painted that majestic bird next to John. The saint has his hand on the open book of his Revelation. He is letting the Apocalypse visions flow through his mind and he seems to conjure the cosmos. A vision in blue unfolds before his mind. John wrote in his Revelation that God was seated before a crystal blue transparent sea, so the artist Bol has applied this detail of the Bible to make blue the overall colour of his image, which was quite innovative for a landscape picture. The dominant blue part of the painting grows to the right in a ‘V’ shape from out of John’s mind.

There is a port and ships trying with full sails to enter the harbour. But the high abrupt mountain rocks menace the small harbour. The skies are threatening. Very dark blue clouds have gathered and darkened the heavens. Even in the sea the whales threaten. There are shepherds guarding their sheep in the hills on the right, but these seem so small in this overwhelming nature. The port town is vulnerable too. A high citadel looks minuscule on the scale of the knife-shaped rocks. One fears the wrath of God over the scene.

It is the moment of the Apocalypse. The clouds break high above and from very far a figure steps out of the light: God will descend to judge the earth. An array of angels already precedes God and the angels fall down on the port. Hans Bol has made a hallucinating picture with the strange, alien blue mostly to the right, the green of life to the left. Blue is the vision of John’s mind; natural green is John’s environment. Only Saint John seems to be saved by the green. John is painted in colours that contrast with the rest of the picture. His figure stands out in its grey and red colours like a wizard manipulating the universe. Whereas we feel that this scene is created only by John’s mind, he is also the outsider of the scene. John is the contemplator of the drama.

The painting of Hans Bol is maybe not the greatest art, but we feel that the painter has profoundly thought about his subject. Bol tried to represent his emotions on reading the Apocalypse. He has well succeeded in presenting an individual vision of these feelings, of a fiery John who sees the world in danger of destruction. Ships are desperately fleeing for the coming storm into what they think is a safe harbour, but a more terrible danger still looms above. For Hans Bol, this image applies to humanity. People are working under dangerous threats for their daily bread and for the longer lasting fame. But all this is ephemerous, a force is manipulating the universe and when this force is unleashed apocalyptic events play with the frail humans.

This really is what must have been in John’s mind when he wrote, “I, John, your brother and partner in hardships, in the kingdom and in perseverance in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos on account of the Word of God and of witness to Jesus. It was the Lord’s Day and I was in ecstasy, and I heard a loud voice behind me, like the sound of a trumpet, saying, “Write down in a book all that you see, and send it to the seven churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”” G38

Hans Bol’s picture is of the moment when John tells, “All the kings of the earth, the governors and the commanders, the rich people, and the men of affluence, the whole population, slaves and citizens, hid in caverns and among the rocks of the mountains. They said to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us away from the One who sits on the Throne and from the retribution of the Lamb. For the Great Day of his retribution has come, and who can face it?”” G38

Thus, Hans Bol, lesser known painter of miniatures, small artist of small paintings, has made a picture of a tremendous vision. He did not just paint a landscape and added merely a Saint John to it. He did combine these elements, but he succeeded in giving a true view of the mind of John and of the Apocalypse without referring to monsters, horses, mystic lambs and the image of God in full glory of wrath. Bol used a landscape and colours to present his vision. His landscape painting is in line with the famous tradition of Northern landscape painters who showed great landscapes and small figures as if more than in Italy the artists had experienced the grandeur of nature and its powers.

Filippino Lippi's Paintings

The same year that Saint John wrote his Apocalypse, the emperor Domitian was murdered and John could return to Ephesus, where a crowd gathered and ran out to meet him, hailing him. As John entered the city, a woman called Drusiana, who had been a dear friend of his, was being carried out for burial. The kinsmen of the woman, and the widows and orphans of Ephesus then appealed to John, saying that Drusiana had dearly wished to see the Apostle return. But now Drusiana was dead and could not set eyes on her beloved Apostle again. John ordered them to set down the bier, to unbind the body and he said, ‘Drusiana, may Jesus Christ grant you life again. Arise, go to your house and prepare food for me’. Drusiana got up and went directly to her house, as if she had been awakened from sleep and not from death.

Filippino Lippi used this scene as well as the scene in which the Apostle is boiled in a cauldron by Emperor Domitian, to paint magnificent frescoes in the Strozzi chapel of the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The frescoes were finished in 1502 and thus date from the last years of Lippi’s life. Lippi painted two scenes from the life of Saint John. He painted the scenes of the left wall of the chapel, whereas two frescoes from the life of Saint Philip of his hands adorned the right wall, on the other side. The Strozzi chapel was assigned to Filippo Strozzi, whose patron saint was Saint Philip, and who would be buried in there later. But the chapel was previously dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist, so Lippi also honoured this saint in his paintings.

Like as with the scenes of Saint Philip, Filippino Lippi read a story from the apocryphal Gospels, maybe in the ‘Golden Legend’. He read the story thoroughly and represented it faithfully. We see Drusiana on the bier, being raised by Saint John. On the left are mourning women, holding their children, exactly as mentioned in the story. To the right Lippi painted the rest of the death procession. Here we see the priest and a woman holing vases of anointments. Filippino Lippi applied the same structure in this fresco as in the one on the opposite wall. He drew a horizontal band of figures with the main theme in the centre and he showed a vertical composition of architectures, rising out of the horizontal band of figures further down. In the architectures we remark the same hang for excessive decoration and mannered representation of the buildings. All the figures are painted in different poises. All are shown in quite vivid movement and hence Lippi showed some of them reclined, in slanting positions.

Filippino Lippi worked meticulously on all details and he applied nice symmetry of forms around the central axis of the fresco. Look for instance at the bier-bearer on the left of the picture. The man is painted in a yellow-brown robe and green cloak. To the right, the second bearer is similarly dressed. A bit further to the right is a woman, holding her baby in her arms, painted in a green robe. That woman forms a kind of counter-weight to the green colour surface of the figure of Saint John. Saint John looks to the left and there stands another woman, coloured in a light blue dress. These colours stand out against the other hues of the scene and against the greyish background. Filippino Lippi also painted a round, small temple on the left and he balanced this mass with another temple, this one larger but painted in less pronounced grey hues on the right. The roof of the left temple answers the main golden-yellow colours of Drusiana’s cloak (lying on her legs), and of the bearers.

Filippino Lippi painted all the figures in full show of emotions. There is still much rigid dignity in his figures, as we could expect of a major Florentine draughtsman, but Lippi introduced ostentatious show of feelings. The depiction is lively, livelier even than in the artist’s scenes from the life of Saint Philip on the opposite side.

In the ‘Martyrdom of Saint John’, Filippino Lippi showed another story from the apocryphal writings. John stands piously in a cauldron of boiling oil and Emperor Domitian commands his aids to more fire. Here also, Lippi shows the figures in lively action. Profusion of decorative elements in this scene too adds aspects of picturesque.

The Renaissance was a period of rediscovery of the ancient Greek and Roman art and of the philosophies of Plato, Socrates and Aristoteles. Lippi worked very many symbols of Roman antiquity in the scenes. He situated the theme sin Roman surroundings and even though ‘Philip at the Temple of Mars’ happens in Scythia, Roman emblems, monuments and soldiers entered his scene. Still, the Renaissance painters remained ultimately linked to their Christian religion. So much so that they did not only sought inspiration in the Bible but also in the now practically forgotten apocryphal narratives.

Filippino Lippi was a master painter. He had been a student of Sandro Botticelli, had been raised by him, and he was the son of Filippo Lippi, Botticelli’s master. A double tradition of Florentine drawing style and Florentine admiration for graceful representation was instilled in him. Filippino Lippi evolved his father’s and Botticelli’s style into abundance of decorative details, taken from antiquity. He might have been a transition figure in the history of the art of painting. But his transition was a trial; one of the possible roads of evolution that remained un-followed, his style of elaboration taking too much time and being too meticulous. His transition example was not pronounced enough, and the moment of true change was not yet really at hand. His sophistication of depiction however makes a nice and impressive sight in the Strozzi chapel.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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