Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Feast of St John the Evangelist

As with my previous post I am republishing with some emendations a post from three years ago to mark this feast day.

I have always identified St John the Evangelist as my name-saint - being a bit squeamish it is probably because he was the one Apostle not to be martyred - and perhaps also because the medieval Cluniac priory in my home town was under his patronage. Anyway I do rather like the mystical theological approach to faith. That said and thinking about it as I get older I think I should maybe identify with St John the Baptist and indulge in my urge to tell the brood of vipers what I really think, and go round preaching repentence - but I do want people to like me, so maybe not...

St John the Evangelist has not, to my mind, provided the inspiration for artists that the Baptist has. Too often he is depicted as a long haired, rather effeminate young man, and not really the mystical theologian of the New Testament texts, still less one of the Sons of Thunder with a pushy mother...

This painting by Memling is rather better in conveying something of the meditative quality of St John, and anyway it is late medieval and therefore, ipso facto, good.

St. John The Evangelist

St John the Evangelist
Hans Memling c.1430 -1494

Image: artexpertswebsite.com

Here are both St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist in the same artist's Mystic Marriage of St Catherine from the St John Altarpiece of 1474-79 which is in Bruges - the other female saint in the composition is St Barbara:

The Mystic Marriage Of St. Catherine Of Alexandria (central panel of the San Giovanni Polyptch) - Hans Memling - www.hansmemling.org

Here is Memling's panel from the same altarpiece showing St John on Patmos:

St John Altarpiece (right wing) 1474-79 - Hans Memling - www.hansmemling.org
There is great charm and delicacy in Hieronymous Bosch's 1485 painting of St John on Patmos:



Although there is something in this image of the nice young man from Sotheby's or Christie's holding up an object at an auction, and it is a really rather splendid chalice, there is more of both youthful impetuousness and conviction as well as the intensity of devotion and of mysticism in El Greco's paintings of him, as here:


Image: southbear.com

One of my regular readers commented on the post as follows about St John:

[He was p] erhaps just bar-mitzvah'd or whatever the expression is and thus qualified to make up the quorum in the synagogue.That would mean his walking alongside Christ from the ages of, say, 13-16: a deeply impressionable time in any young man's life. It would mean his having been born about A.D.20, and give him ample years in which to reflect, and would strengthen the claims of the early Fathers for his having lived into the second century.

That view of St John strikes me as very credible - teenage enthusiasm making him and his elder brother the brash Sons of Thunder, and, who knows, were they smug or acutely embarrassed by their mother's pursuit of places of honour for them under the seemingly impending new dispensation? There is also the youthful lack of fear that led him, alone of the Apostles, to stand (did he steal there against the advice of older voices, unable to stop himself ?)  at the foot of the Cross with Our Lady, and to rush off  with and out-run St Peter in going to the empty tomb, yet still with the youthful hesitancy to stand outside peering in. Add to that innate spiritual insight and a profound rapport with Our Lord and the Gospel account of him makes for a very believable portrait.

St John, pray for me

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