St. John the Evangelist: The Iconography

In Ephesus the natal day Not his birthday but what is thought to be the day he died and was "born again" into Heaven of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, who, after writing the Gospel, living in exile, and writing the Apocalypse, lived until the time of Emperor Trajan. He founded and governed churches in all of Asia and finally died of old age in the sixty-eighth year after the death of the Lord. He was buried in Ephesus. – Roman Martyrology for December 27

St. John was one of the original twelve apostles1 and has been traditionally taken to be the author of the fourth gospel. Thus he is always in images of the four evangelists and of the apostles as a group. When he is among the evangelists or apostles an eagle may be used as his attribute (example) or as a symbol representing him (example), or on rare occasions a human with the head of an eagle (example). The eagle goes back at least to Jerome's Commentary on Matthew, which says it signifies "John the Evangelist who, having taken up eagle’s wings and hastening toward higher matters, discusses the Word of God" (55). In the East, and early on in the West as noted by Augustine,2 a lion is sometimes used instead of an eagle (example).

PORTRAITS

In solo portraits, John's attribute may instead be a cup or chalice with a snake in it (example). This refers to a story recounted in the Golden Legend in which, to prove his bona fides, John drinks a cup of poison without being harmed.3 In the Latin, the poison is venenum, which also means snake venom – a boon to artists, who can indicate the deadly contents by placing a snake in the cup. Molanus says the cup is also partly a reference to the words of Christ in Matthew 20:23, "You all will drink my cup" – that is, the death that he will endure on the Cross (III, lviii: p. 399). This is the point of one image in Sant'Agnese in Agone, Rome, where an angel presents a cup to John.

In most portraits and other images in the West, St. John is a young person with either a short beard or none at all (example), even in contexts where he is clearly of advanced age (example). This may be due to the way the gospels always put his name second after his brother James, as if he were the younger of the two. Molanus attributes the tradition partly to the fact that "he was an adolescent at the time of the Last Supper and partly because of his perpetual virginity" (ibid.). The Golden Legend also mentions the tradition about John's virginity and attributes it to St. Jerome.

In the East, however, St. John is normally pictured as an old man with a white or grizzled beard, as in this 17th century icon) or this mosaic from 12th-century Sicily, where Eastern imagery was still being retained in Latin churches.

NARRATIVE IMAGES

For images of John as he appears in gospel episodes, see the pages for St. James the Greater, the Transfiguration, the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion.

The Golden Legend recounts the ancient story that the Emperor Domitian tried to execute St. John at the Latin Gate in Rome by having him put into a vat of boiling oil. This was another popular subject for paintings. They normally picture officials and soldiers overseeing the proceedings, a servant stoking the fire below the cauldron, and some sort of architectural backgound to suggest the Latin Gate (example).

The saint was unharmed by the boiling oil, so the emperor exiled him to the island of Patmos. His authoring of the Apocalypse on Patmos is a common subject in both the West (example) and the East, where he is sometimes shown with his assistant Prochorus (example). In this painting he is writing his Gospel in a non-specific landscape background.

Non-scriptural episodes recounted in the Golden Legend include several depicted on the margins of a Crucifixion by Francesco Ghissi: the destruction of the Temple of Diana (story, image), his preaching and object lesson to Actius and Eugenius (story, image) and the raising of Satheus to life (story, image).

THE QUESTION OF JOHN'S "ASCENSION"

The 2nd-century Acts of John claims that at the end of his life John asked his disciples to dig a pit outside the gates of Ephesus. He then prayed a lengthy prayer, lay in the pit, and "gave up his spirit rejoicing." In Latin translations a great light appeared over the saint for an hour, and in some Greek recensions the disciples "brought a linen cloth and spread it upon him, and went into the city. And on the day following we went forth and found not his body, for it was translated by the power of our Lord." The Orthodox Church in America relates the same account on its web page for September 26, the Orthodox feast of the Repose of John the Theologian. The web page includes an icon showing the disciples laying the linen cloth over the body.

The Latin versions of this story evolved through the years. The locale of the pit became the space in front of the altar in John's church, the "great light" temporarily blinded the congregation, and the "translation" was more explicitly a bodily ascension into Heaven. The 13th-century Early South English Legendary (416-17) compares John's ascension to the Virgin Mary's, adding that such a reward is suitable for virgins. In its original form the Golden Legend was more reticent about where the body went (Ryan, I, 55), and Caxton's translation says only God knows what really happened. But in medieval art there are no such doubts. Beginning at least with Giotto in 1315, the emphatically embodied saint floats up from the church into Heaven, where Jesus and the Apostles reach out to welcome him (example).

ST. JOHN AND ST. EDWARD THE CONFESSOR

The Legend also tells of an episode from the life of St. Edward the Confessor in which the king gave a valuable ring to a poor pilgrim who turned out to be St. John. Thus we see John with the king in an early 20th-century window in an English church.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-01-11.

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6th-century mosaic in Ravenna (See the description page)

9th-century ivory  (See the description page)

St. John in a 15th-century altar frontal (See the description page)

MORE IMAGES

DATES

  • December 27 is the main feast day for St. John.
  • May 6 is the feast of "St. John at the Latin Gate," the place where he survived boiling in oil.

NAMES

  • In the Orthodox churches he is St. John the Theologian.

HAGIOGRAPHY

ALSO SEE

NOTES

1 Matthew 10:1-4, Mark 3:14-19, Luke 6:13-16, Acts 1:1.

2 Martinov, 361. Martinov says some images of the saint have a partridge on his hand, but I have not yet found any of that type.

3 Ryan, 53. Graesse, 59.