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.
Apart from the individual images of the Theologian, he is also often portrayed dictating a Gospel to his disciple Prochorus. The iconography is based on the episode from the Travels of John the Theologian which describes the writing of a Gospel by John the Theologian. After a few days spent in private devotion, the Apostle was bestowed with the Divine revelation that appeared to him as lightning and thunder; putting Prochorius on the land to his right, he dictated him the Gospel standing and staring the sky. The earliest depictions of this episode are found in two Gospels dated to the late 10th and the early 11th centuries (kept in Paris and Athos, respectively). In the 11th – 13th centuries it was the most popular iconographic type that was reproduced almost without change. They vary only in details, such as the presence or absence of hills and architectural motifs at the background; a throne upon which sits Prochorus; Prochorus’ poses and gestures or, less often, those of John the Theologian himself. In the 14th century, the Divine light was depicted as communication of Divine energy to a man. The event takes place in a cave or against its background. On some images, the cave is so large that John the Theologian and Prochorus are pictured inside it. They could be depicted either seated on hills or on small thrones; inside the cave could be a table with stationary, a basket with scrolls etc. Since the 15th century these iconographic programs also gained a broad circulation in Russian miniatures (the Hitrovo Gospel, ca. 1400 – Russian State Library; The Morozov Gospel from the Assumption Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin, the 1410s – State Museum of the Moscow Kremlin). The iconographic subjects were based on book miniature compositions, such as John the Theologian on Patmos – a centerpiece of a late 14th century icon with 44 border scenes from the Andrei Rublev Museum.
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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