Gender Gap St. John as Male or Female? Essay

Gender Gap St. John as Male or Female?

The work of art I have chosen to critique is the representation of St. John the Evangelist, from the Gospel Book of St. Wedricus, circa 1147. It was created by the use of tempura on vellum. It is located in the Socie´te´ Arche´ologique at Historique in Avesnes-sur-Helpe in France. The discussion will center on the depictions, characteristics and portrayals of St. John in Gospel Book of Abbot Wedricus as compared to other works, such as Leonardo do Vinci’s “Last Supper” and Rafaello Sanzio’s “Crucifixion”. My sources will consist of the critiques of others regarding St. John’s depictions in the artworks mentioned above. The opinions the investigation centers on are as follows: The controversy regarding the “feminine” depictions of St. John in art, why St. John is always depicted as being close-at-hand during Jesus’ final hours, and the inspirations for the differences in St. John’s depiction throughout the years.

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Many critics over the years have commented on the femininity of da Vinci’s St. John in “The Last Supper”, and due to comments made in Dan Brown’s novel The da Vinci Code, more controversy has arisen as to whether or not St. John’s depiction is of the saint as apostle or actually Mary Magdalene. “Mary Magdalene wasn’t listed among those at the table in any of the four Gospels,” according to Shelley Esaak, Mary Magdalene was instead washing the feet of the apostles according to the Bible. (2006) In all of the works mentioned above the artists chose to deliver renditions of St. John that portrayed him as youthful, though the illumination in the Gospel Book of St. Wedricus does not feature the saint with long hair, his features still maintain the boyish quality of other works on the same subject. It must be remembered that St. John was the youngest of the apostles. (Wikipedia, 2006) It should also be noted that men, especially young men, in both da Vinci’s and Raphael’s periods had long hair. (Wikipedia, 2006) Even these artists’ self-portraits feature long hair.

The artistic style of Raphael was influenced by Pietro Vannucci, a.k.a. Perugino, and da Vinci. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Raphael was particularly influenced by Leonardo’s “Madonna and Child with St. Anne” pictures, which are marked by an intimacy and simplicity of setting uncommon in 15th-century art” and later “Raphael went beyond Leonardo, however, in creating new figure types whose round, gentle faces reveal uncomplicated and typically human sentiments but raised to a sublime perfection and serenity.” (2006, p. 4) At the “—St. John at the Last Supper—“ site, the author points out that it was believed that St. John was so young that he had not grown a beard and that the hairstyle was popular among young men at the time of the painting. (2006) da Vinci and Raphael were not the only artists to paint St. John in an effeminate manner, the “Last Supper” site features other works, by other artists ranging from El Greco to Rosselli, that depict a young, beardless, long-haired young man. In both da Vinci’s and Raphael’s works St. John is at Christ’s side and many have questioned why he should be depicted in those positions.

St. John was often portrayed in artworks in a position nearest to Jesus. He was one of three witnesses to the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37), the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1), and the Agony at Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37). He is painted nest to Jesus in “The Last Supper” because in the Bible he was leaning on Jesus’ chest (John 13: 23, 25) John was the only apostle to provide a vigil during Jesus’ last hours on the cross (John 19:25-27) There are many other instances in the Bible where John was close at hand or in the forefront of events occurring in Jesus’ life, according to the Bible and many of these have been immortalized by artists throughout the years.     “As one of the original twelve disciples, John was characterized as being the disciple that Jesus loved.  He was the only one of the 12 disciple that did not forsake the Great Teacher at the hour of His death and as a result, the Great Teacher made him the protector of His mother.” (Elam, 2000) Because Saint John lived to an old age not all of the paintings of him show him beside Jesus.

Artists have rendered Saint John in varying manners throughout the years. The differences in the styles of the times when the paintings, drawings, and illuminations were created played a great part in how the end results appeared, also the time of St. John’s life being depicted makes a marked difference in the works. The illumination in the Gospel Book of St. Wedricus differs markedly from the works of da Vinci and Raphael for many reasons, the first being that the illumination depicts St. John as the Evangelist, when he was much older than the apostle in the others’ works. The style used in the illumination is quite different from that of the Italians because, according to the article ‘Art in the Crusades Era”, “In illuminated manuscripts, the artists could dispense with the mandates of natural illusion and space and arrange the figures and forms in a purely ornamental fashion.” (1997) This style was the opposite of the styles used by da Vinci and Raphael, who tried to capture their subjects in a natural manner. “The artists [of the Romanesque Period] did not concern themselves so much with an imitation of natural form in these manuscripts as much as with the arrangement of traditional sacred symbols. The symbols allowed the artists to depict the stories without illustrating actual scenes from them.” (“Art in the Crusades Era”)

The Romanesque artists gave the symbols as much emphasis as the person they shared the picture with. They did little to blend them into the scene in a natural manner therefore they tend to stand out more than in the others’ paintings. These artists weren’t drawing the scenes from the Bible, they were drawing the religious figure and religious symbols, often from proscribed patterns. Da Vinci approached St. John from a different point of view, “Leonardo conceived the staggering plan of observing all objects in the visible world, recognizing their form and structure, and pictorially describing them exactly as they are.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006, p. 9) In Raphael’s work “Perugino’s influence is seen in the emphasis on perspectives, in the graded relationships between the figures and the architecture, and in the lyrical sweetness of the figures. Nevertheless, even in this early painting, it is clear that Raphael’s sensibility was different from his teacher’s. The disposition of the figures is less rigidly related to the architecture, and the disposition of each figure in relation to the others is more informal and animated. The sweetness of the figures and the gentle relation between them surpasses anything in Perugino’s work.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006, p. 3) This different approach to art and the subject’s being rendered account for the major differences in the depictions of St. John throughout the years.

The only one of the subjects discussed so far worthy of any argument is whether or not da Vinci meant for Mary Magdalene to be at Christ’s side at “The Last Supper”, or if the person in the painting is meant to be St. John. The artists during da Vinci’s era took their Ecclesiastical works very seriously and were in close contact with representatives from the church while they were creating their works. They had to answer immediately for any deviations from the representations of events in the Bible, so why would da Vinci even consider putting Mary at Jesus’ side at the table? It would have been sacrilege and cost him the patronage of the church. St. John is painted nest to Jesus in “The Last Supper” because in the Bible he was leaning on Jesus’ chest (John 13: 23, 25), and Mary Magdalene is not present in the painting. The Bible has the only opinion that counts regarding the seating at the table in “The Last Supper”. St. John appears feminine because he was a young man, the youngest apostle, and in the Florentine school of art young men had long hair and clean shaven faces and were often pretty to the eye, rather than handsome, this approach to St. John also reflected in Raphael’s “Crucifixion”. This is the way that many artists throughout the years have portrayed St. John during his years as an apostle.

He is the favored or “blessed” apostle because he was there, according to the Bible, for many of the most important events in Jesus’ life, from the agony at Gethsemane to the resurrection. His faith in Christ never wavered, unlike that of the other apostles. When artists portrayed him in his latter days, depending on the style of the times, he is still portrayed as having longish hair and feminine features, but he is still treated as a sacred personage. This period in St. John’s life is reflected in the illumination from the Gospel Book of St. Wedricus.

The best comment on the subject of St. John’s androgynousness comes from the unnamed author of “—St. John at the Last Supper—“, who wrote, “ We must try to understand the viewpoint of these artists, who grew up in an androcentric environment – men and boys had a far more important position in this society than in the western world of today. The ideal of beauty since the 19th century became very gynocentric – a cute face is since then usually interpreted as “feminine”, although most traits of a woman aren’t specifically female… Since St. John was considered to be very young, he was simply not old enough to look very adult. That is the reason, why people mistake him for a female, just like many long haired boys were mistaken for girls in the 70s by elderly people.” (2006)

Bibliography

Art of the Crusades Era. (1997) Retrieved October 7, 2006, from: http://www.umich.edu/~marcons/Crusades/topics/art/art-article.html

Borao, J. E. “Some Notes on the Da Vinci Code”. Retrieved October 7, 2006, from: http://ccms.ntu.edu.tw/~borao/2Profesores/DVC some notes.pdf

Elam, P. G. (2000) “ St. John the Evangelist, Patron Saint”. From: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Oracle/1190/stjohne.html

Esaak, S. (2006) “Q. Is that John or Mary Magdalene in the Last Supper?”. Retrieved October 7, 2006, from About: Art History: http://arthistory.about.com/cs/last_supper/f/john_v_mary.htm

John the Apostle. (2006) In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 6, 2006, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_the_Apostle

Raphael. ( 2006). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved October  6,  2006, from Encyclopedia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9062704

—St. John at the Last Supper—. Unnamed Author. Retrieved October 6, 2006, from http://home.arcor.de/berzelmayr/st-john.html

St. John the Evangelist. (n. d.) Retrieved October 7, 2006, from: http://www.unc.edu/courses/2005spring/engl/012/051/KEJALI/artpage.html

The Last Supper (Leonardo). (2006) In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 6, 2006, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Supper_%28Leonardo%

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