St. John the Divine. the Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology

By O'Reilly, Jennifer | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2005 | Go to article overview

St. John the Divine. the Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology


O'Reilly, Jennifer, The Catholic Historical Review


St. John the Divine. The Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology. By Jeffrey F. Hamburger. (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2002. Pp. xxiv, 347; 156 black and white illustrations, 26 colored plates. $60.00.)

In medieval tradition St. John the Evangelist embodied multiple roles-the beloved disciple who leaned on Christ's breast at the Last Supper, the eyewitness of the Crucifixion; the adopted son of the Virgin who was himself a model of virginity and a figure of the contemplative life. He was regarded as the author of the Fourth Gospel and the Book of Revelation and the visionary theologian of the Incarnation and the Trinity. In a masterly survey, Jeffrey Hamburger reviews aspects of the iconography of St. John in medieval manuscript art from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries, but focuses on a small number of unusual images which are here identified for the first time as depictions of St. John in the image and likeness of Christ. The surviving representations of John as Christomorph, an exemplar of human perfectibility, show him in various guises, such as the Logos-Creator, God in Majesty, and Wisdom incarnate.

Hamburger studies the images in relation to the theology of the imago dei and the exegesis of Jn 1:1-14, read in conjunction with other texts (notably Gen 1:1,26,Rom 8:29-30,Phil 2:7,Col 1:13-16, IJn 3:2).Although he notes the absence of images of deification in Byzantine art, he relates the theme of the deified Evangelist to ideas about images and spiritual vision generated in early discourse on the Incarnation and the relationship between the divine and the human, the invisible and the visible. He eloquently argues that this theological discourse was crucial to the very formation of Christian art. More provocatively he claims that, "The path to God charted by John ... is predicated on the possibility of the soul raising itself to God by means of its capacity to see" (p. 18).

The origin of a "theology of deification" is traced in the neo-Platonic theology of the Greek Fathers, which was transmitted to the West primarily by John Scotus Eriugena, from whom it passed into monastic thought in the twelfth century, and then to the Rhenish mystics of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. From his close knowledge of the relationship between art, mysticism, and the literature of visionary experience in the late medieval Rhineland, Hamburger provides examples of this tradition in a variety of sources, some previously unpublished.

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