A bunch of western religious art is populated with stirring, but largely unrelatable images (for middle-class viewers in any case).
None of my nearest and dearest, for instance, has ever been non-metaphorically crucified, or required to cut off their boobies.
There are, however, also many examples of touchingly commonplace acts, comparable to our diurnal experiences, even by super name-dropping quality Biblical peeps. Mostly these are children-centred, because, well, babies are cute (some of the sweetest include a toddler Virgin Mary learning to walk and many a Renaissance Christ child being cosy with his mum).
But in some, it is the adults alone who are given their own heart-string tugging moments.
Today it is one such representation which I’d like to explore; a sculptural type which became known in the early fourteenth century. It is of the figure of St. John the Evangelist, resting his head on the breast (occasionally the shoulder or hand) of Christ.
One of the more famous examples, now in Cleveland, shows such a work’s typical composition (main image). Here, St John is using the cheerful-looking JC’s chesticles as a pillow. The apostle’s eyes are shut, while Christo tenderly clasps one of his hands, and embraces the shoulder of the other.
The Cleveland group is lovely, and in its original state must have been quite brilliant to view. The carved folds, hands, and face are finished to a fine degree, and the vibrant gold which would have covered the cloth, along with the warm tones of the figures’ skin, would have been quite summin’.
Fourteenth-century Swabia (which I struggle to think of as a real location) was the original birthplace of the work, along with many others like it. Rarely are their makers’ names known.
Such sculptures continued to appear into the fifteenth and sixteenth century, but in smaller numbers. After the sixteenth century, they fizzled out completely. About fifty works remain today.
(‘Tis a shame that a good carved cuddle and a good snooze became passé).
If you want to be super fancy, these works are known as the Christus Johannes Gruppe (Christ John Group) or the Johannesminne (Love of John).
The sculptures lived in the churches and cathedrals of the Rhineland and Swabia. And it’s nice to think that, as a result of their public location, the #makelovenotwar vibe of the carvings were regularly experienced by regular people.
Most of the works are largish; the figures being about half, or just over, that of a modern fully grown man (which meant probs almost as tall as a shorter Bavarian? Although recent research on the heights of people show that they manically varied throughout the cluster of these centuries. Basically, I have no bleedin’ idea).
So, what were the Johannesminne sculptures, and how were they meant to be read?
In the Gospel of John (as in, he of the sculptures we are talking about) there is a bit where the Last Supper is described (John 13.23-26).
At one point, Jesus starts going on about his frenemy, Judas.
AKA, the Paris to His Nicole.
This is followed by the text:
Now one of his disciples, he whom Jesus loved, was reclining at Jesus’ bosom.
(As in our John)
Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, and said to him “Who is it of whom he speaks?” He therefore, leaning back on the bosom of Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?”
Jesus answered, “It is he for whom I shall dip the bread, and give it to him.”
(And so on, and so forth. We know how it ends)
Images of the Last Supper abounded throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, many showing a resting St. John on Jesus. In one example by Dürer, Johnny boy looks more sozzled than sweet-tempered, but the general gist of the theme remains (fig. 1).
Most of the sculptures are not immediately recognisable as having originated from the Last Supper. In only one example, now in Toulouse, is this not the case, as a result of the inclusion of a table with bits of food.
But that one is a bit different because it’s made out of limestone.
Therefore, really, it shouldn’t be grouped with the German Johannesminne.
Illustrations of St. John on Christ’s bosom are also found in medieval illustrations, oftentimes in books of the Acts of the Apostles, or the Gospel of St. John. In some cases the table of the Last Supper is present, while in others it’s just the two of them.
It is this latter type that is most often transferred from page to wood in the German sculptures of St John and Christ, with compositions unadorned and uninterrupted by any and all external objects. Some of the carvings are (or would have been) swanky, like the Cleveland group, while others are beautifully less elaborate, as in this example in Munich (where the damaged hands of the figures make them look like they’re giving each other fist bumps – fig. 2).
Although the Biblical description of the Last Supper from the Gospel of St. John seems a convincing source for our works, would you believe, it was not the only example of John being described cosying up to Christ.
An alternative origin for the sculptures’ subject may have been an apocryphal description of their first encounter.
This event is illustrated in one of the earliest images in western art of J and J meeting each other, and it comes from The Calling of St John, a twelfth-century miniature from St. Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations (fig. 3).
On the left, it shows Christ coaxing his future disciple to leave his bride and follow Him instead. On the right, John, after having been successfully wooed, is depicted giving Jesus a cuddle and resting his head on His breast.
The Latin text that accompanies the image, which originates from a poem by a ninth-century monk from St. Gall, roughly translates to:
Rise, leave the breast of your bride, and recline upon the breast of the Lord Jesus
St. John was the runaway groom – the original Julia Roberts if you will.
This story, along with John often being referred to as Jesus’s ‘beloved’ or ‘most loved’ disciple has given rise to a whole host of ideas surrounding the potential homoerotic nature of their described ‘love’.
Although this interpretation has been much explored (and criticised) in recent literature, it was also found in ye oldie times:
James I, for example, defended his relationship with the Duke of Buckingham by saying, ‘I wish to speak in my own behalf and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had his son John, and I have my George.’
(You sly dog, James)
While Christopher Marlow more explicitly commented that, ‘St. John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma.’
Funnily enough, this did not bode well for Christopher, who was ultimately tried for blasphemy as a result.
Jirousek, C. S., ‘Christ and St. John the Evangelist as a Model of Medieval Mysticism’, Cleveland Studies in the History of Art 6 (2001), 6 – 27
Muir, C. D., Saintly Brides and Bridegrooms: The Mystic Marriage in Northern Renaissance Art (Turnhout, 2013)