The Apostle John the Theologian is one of Jesus Christ’s closest disciples and Twelve Apostles. Christian tradition ascribes him the authorship of several New Testament works, such as the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John the Apostle and The Book of Revelation.
John the Theologian is frequently mentioned in the New Testament as “one of the disciples, whom Jesus loved” (John 20: 2–9; 21: 7; 21: 20). According to the New Testament, brothers James and John were fishermen and fished with their father Zebedee, whom they had left after they became the disciples of Jesus Christ.
The synoptic Gospels represent John the Theologian as one of the first and closest disciples of Christ: together with the Apostle Paul he cooked the Passover meal; he and the Apostle James witnessed the greatest miracles of Christ - the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the Transfiguration of Christ; together with them and the Apostle Andrew he talked about the demolition of the Temple. John the Theologian was leaning on Jesus’ chest during the Last Supper (John 13: 23), stood by the cross and took Jesus’ Mother to his own home (John 19: 26–27), learned from Mary Magdalene about the disappearance of Christ’s body from the tomb and hurried to the tomb (John 20: 2–3), recognized the Lord who performed the miracle of the great catch of the fish (John 21: 3-8). John the Theologian lived to the old age. The apocryphal writings describe the life of John the Theologian and his work on the compilation of the Gospel – all those who had testimonies of Jesus’ life, passed them to John the Theologian in Ephesus; he divided them into three synoptic Gospels, adding to them the one he wrote himself. According to many accounts, John the Theologian was exiled to Patmos during the reign of the Emperor Domitian. The apocryphal Acts of John describing the numerous miracles performed by John, culminates in a story of his death in Ephesus on a Sunday day after a sermon, prayer and the Eucharist. John’s tomb is located in Ephesus. Unlike the relics of other apostles, the location of his relics is unknown in the Christian world. According to an apocryphal account, not only his soul, but also his body were taken up to heaven, in the same way it had happened with the prophets Elijah, Enoch and the Theotokos.
From the second half of the 16th century especially widespread, apart from the individual images of John the Theologian, were the compositions known as “St. John the Theologian in silence”. They are encountered in manuscript miniatures, temple decorations and icons. The characteristic feature of this icon is the figure of John the Theologian holding one or two fingers at the lips as a sign of silence. This iconography is believed to be based on the final words of the Gospel of John “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” (John 21: 25). This, and many other New Testament accounts emphasizing the especial proximity of the “favorite disciple” to the Savior, served as a basis for the image of John the Theologian, a mystic, bestowed with the revelations of the Savior and entrusted with the unspoken divine wisdom that the profane are not allowed to know. This image was in line with his Revelation and the apocryphal works, associated with John the Theologian, which were believed by the authors to contain “secret” knowledge received by the apostle. The evolution of the iconographic type could be also influenced by the ascetic tradition of hesychast monks who claimed that the knowledge of God can be achieved only through continuous silent prayer. Therefore, John the Theologian’s gesture can be interpreted not only as his cognition of the divine knowledge but also as silence as the only way to acquire it. Beginning from the 9th – 10th centuries, a gesture of hand held at the mouth served as a sign of concentration and contemplation that were to precede the writing of the Gospel. Such images could become a model for the new iconographic type, though the exact time and place of its appearance is unlikely to be established. In the 16th – 18th cnetury Russian art it existed in two versions – a short one – a half-length image without attributes, and an expanded one - with various attributes, such as the codex, stationary, sometimes a symbol (eagle) or the embodiment of Wisdom. Broad circulation of this iconography in the 17th – 18th century is linked by some scholars to the influence of the Old Believer culture.
In the New Times, the John the Theologian images were traditionally used for training the apprentices of icon-painters in the first five or six months of the training course.
The feast day of John the Theologian is celebrated on May 21st (May 8th in the old style), October 9 (September 26th in the old style) – the Death of John the Theologian, and July 13th (June 30th in the old style) – on the Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles.
Zhanna G. Belik,
Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.
Olga E. Savchenko,
research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.
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