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John the Evangelist and Apostle, Saint

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John, the son of Zebedee and brother of Saint James the Greater, plays an important role in the Gospels and in art from the early Christian period onward. Traditionally identified as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23), his significance in the Gospels, his reputed authorship of the Gospel of John and several Epistles, as well as his role as recipient of the *Apocalypse have earned him an extremely prominent position in the visual arts.


As one of the *Four Evangelists, John appears in art throughout the medieval period in the guise of an *author and may be accompanied or represented by his animal symbol, the eagle, which was chosen to signify the high-soaring and inspirational quality of his writing . Portraits of John as an author occur as prefatory illustrations in Gospel manuscripts and in a variety of other artistic contexts.


John appears in several New Testament episodes that are frequently illustrated in art. He is represented, along with his brother, as a fisherman in scenes showing Jesus summoning the *apostles; the men are shown in a boat or leaving their nets. John, James, and *Peter are named as the apostles present at the *Transfiguration as well as the companions of Jesus at the *miracle of the *Raising of Jairus’s daughter. At the *Last Supper, the beloved disciple (understood to be John) is described as having been seated next to Jesus, resting his head on the table or leaning against Jesus’ shoulder. John becomes thus identifiable in several scenes and is frequently shown as youthful and beardless. His prominent position at the Last Supper also inspired, in later medieval northern Europe, devotional sculptures depicting the seated Jesus and Saint John as independent images extracted from the narrative context . John was also identified by early commentators as the bridegroom of the *Marriage at Cana (his intended bride was *Mary Magdalene), and he is traditionally shown in scenes of the *Crucifixion of Jesus, standing opposite the Virgin *Mary beside the *cross, following the text of John 19:26-27. The youthful John may also be identifiable in scenes of the *Deposition, *Lamentation, and *Entombment of Jesus.


As the recipient and author of the Apocalypse, John appears often in illustrated Apocalypse cycles, witnessing the visions as well as recording them in Page 140  writing. He may be shown seated and writing, in a landscape setting indicating the island of Patmos (where he states the writing was composed, Rev. 1:9), or he may stand, receiving a book or scrolls from *God or *Christ.


Illustrated Apocalypse cycles frequently include further episodes from the life of John, which derive from apocryphal sources such as the Acts of John . Many of these stories (further elaborated in the Golden Legend ) also appear in fresco, manuscript illustration, sculpture, mosaic, and stained glass. Scenes include the episode where John was tortured in a cauldron of boiling oil under the orders of the emperor Domitian in Rome; the challenge of the pagan high priest in Ephesus in which John proved the superiority of the Christian God by making the sign of the cross over a cup of poison, causing the evil potion to come out shaped as a serpent; his raising back to life of the Ephesian widow Drusiana, who sat up in her coffin; several other *miracles involving transformations of wood and stones into gold and precious gems; as well as posthumous appearances (e.g., to the empress Galla Placidia to whom he gave one of his sandals as a *relic for the church she founded in his honor in Ravenna). According to these apocryphal sources, John, like *Elijah and *Enoch, was “assumed” into *heaven upon his *death at a very advanced age; in these scenes he is shown as an extremely elderly, bearded figure. He is also said to have dug his own (cross-shaped) grave when Christ appeared to him in a vision and alerted him of his coming death. After he lay down in the grave, a great light momentarily blinded the witnessing disciples, who then saw that John’s body was gone and manna (or a eucharistic wafer) was left in the grave, emitting a sweet smell.


Because Jesus spoke to both John and Mary from the cross (John 19:26-27), the tradition that Jesus entrusted Mary to John’s care was developed in tales of their later life in Ephesus. John is thus often present in illustrations of the *Dormition and *Assumption of the Virgin.


As an independent figure, when not accompanied by his eagle attribute, John will often be shown holding a cup or chalice containing a curling serpent.

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