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.

The earliest surviving images of John the Theologian date back to the 3rd – 4th AD. They are encountered in the catacomb paintings and sarcophagus reliefs representing John the Theologian among the 12 apostles or, less often, among the four Evangelists surrounding the Savior or standing near him. In early Christian art, John the Theologian was often depicted as a young man, which can be regarded as the evidence of his being the youngest disciple of Christ. More widespread is an image of John the Theologian as an old man standing before a small table with an open codex in his hands, such as on the mosaics of the San Vitale Church in Ravenna, Italy. The 9th – 10th centuries saw the development of iconographic types of the Evangelists who could be portrayed either standing with an open Gospel in hands, or sitting at the table with stationary lying thereon. Almost all Byzantine manuscripts of the 9th- early 11th century represent John the Theologian as an old man, since, according to New Testaments accounts, he wrote his Gospel in an extreme old age. In the later monuments John was most commonly portrayed as a man with a high embossed wrinkled forehead with receding hairline, short curly hair and a small spade beard with separated locks. Many Gospel miniatures also depict the hand of God or a segment of heaven with radiant rays; on some icons John the Theologian is pictured looking back and listening to the Divine Revelation. The scene is often set in a cave or against its background.

The symbol of John the Theologian, an eagle, is often present in iconographic compositions.

Apart from the individual images of the Theologian, he is also often portrayed dictating a Gospel to his disciple Prochorus. Different versions of the John the Theologian iconography that had formed in script book miniatures, were broadly used in other art genres, primarily, in the murals of Byzantine and Russian churches, where they were usually located on scoinson arches. Since the 14th century, the Evangelists icons have been located on the Holy Gates. In the post-iconoclastic period, the icons of the Evangelists could be included in the Deesis compositions. The John the Theologian iconography is based on the writing Travels of John the Theologian, that was written in the 5th – not later than 11th century and translated into Slavonic. These cycles have been known since the late 15th – early decades of the 16th century. The most complete hagiography of the saint is represented on a late 15th century icon with 44 border scenes from the Boris and Gleb monastery in Dmitrov (presently held in 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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