The cup of St. John

Hans Memling: St. John the Evangelist writing the Book of Revelations in the island of Patmos, ca. 1479. Detail of the St. John Altarpiece of Bruges

On June 24, Midsummer Night, that is, the day of St. John the Baptist we saw some little-known depictions of the saint: the two-headed John and the angel-winged John, the latter sometimes with a cup in the hand, in which the child Jesus is floating. Today, on the feast of St. John the Evangelist, we want to introduce a similar representation of this John, where he blesses the cup in his hand, and the poison in it, intended for him, escapes in the shape of a serpent or dragon.

El Greco: St. John the Evangelist, 1595-1604

St. John the Evangelist is better known from some other iconographic types, which are more widespread, because they are all based on the New Testament books: when during the Last Supper he leans his head on Christ’s bosom, when he and the Virgin Mary stand on either side under the cross, and Christ entrusts His mother to him, or when he is writing the Book of Revelations or his gospel in the island of Patmos. The “John with a cup” iconographic formula, however, has no biblical source. This type comes from a second-century apocryphal work, the Acts of John, where Aristodemus, the chief priest of the Ephesian Artemis Temple forces the apostle to drink poison. The story found its way into the most popular medieval collection of saints’ legends, the 13th-century Legenda Aurea. The original Acts of John recounts it like this:

“Now when Aristodemus, who was chief priest of all those idols, saw this [the destruction of many pagan temples of Ephesus and the conversion of 12,000 people], filled with a wicked spirit, he stirred up sedition among the people, so that one people prepared themselves to fight against the other. And John turned to him and said: Tell me, Aristodemus, what can I do to take away the anger from thy soul? And Aristodemus said: If thou wilt have me believe in thy God, I will give thee poison to drink, and if thou drinkst it, and diest not, it will appear that thy God is true. The apostle answered: If thou givest me poison to drink, when I call on the name of my Lord, it will not be able to harm me. Aristodemus said again: I will that thou first seest others drink it and die straightway that so thy heart may recoil from that cup. […]

Aristodemus therefore went to the proconsul and asked him two men who were to undergo the sentence of death. And when he had set them in the midst of the market-place before all the people, in the sight of the apostle he made them drink the poison: and as soon as they had drunk it, they gave up the ghost. Then Aristodemus turned to John and said: Hearken to me and depart from thy teaching wherewith thou callest away the people from the worship of the gods; or take and drink this, that thou mayest show that thy God is almighty, if after thou hast drunk, thou canst remain whole. Then the blessed John, as they lay dead which had drunk the poison, like a fearless and brave man took the cup, and making the sign of the cross, spake thus:

My God, and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whose word the heavens were established, unto whom all things are subject, whom all creation serveth, whom all power obeyeth, feareth and trembleth, when we call on thee for succour: whose name the serpent hearing is still, the dragon fleeth, the viper is quiet, the toad is still and strengthless, the scorpion is quenched, the basilisk vanquished, and the phalangia [spider] doth no hurt – in a word, all venomous things, and the fiercest reptiles and noisome beasts, are pierced. Do thou, I say, quench the venom of this poison, put out the deadly workings thereof, and void it of the strength which it hath in it: and grant in thy sight unto all these whom thou hast crated, eyes that they may see, and ears that they may hear and a heart that they may understand thy greatness.

And when he had thus said, he armed his mouth and all his body with the sign of the cross and drank all that was in the cup. And after he had drunk, he said: I ask that they for whose sake I have drunk, be turned unto thee, O Lord, and by thine enlightening receive the salvation which is in thee. And when for the space of three hours the people saw that John was of a cheerful countenance, and that there was no sign at all of paleness of fear in him, they began to cry out with a loud voice: He is the one true God whom John worshippeth.

But Aristodemus even so believed not, though the people reproached him: but turned unto John and said: This one thing I lack – if thou in the name of thy God raise up these that have died by this poison, my mind will be cleansed of all doubt. […] John caled Aristodemus to him, and gave him his coat: […] Go and cast it upon the bodies of the dead, and thou shalt say thus: The apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ hath sent me that in his name ye may rise again, that all may know that life and death are servants of my Lord Jesus Christ. Which when Aristodemus had done, and had seen them rise, he worshipped John.”

Sarumi Mester: St. John the Evangelist drinks the poisoned cup. Salisbury, ca. 1250 k. Below: Bernardo Martorell on the same, ca. 143

This story is the source of the typical solitary representations of St. John the Evangelist, in which the standing saint is blessing the cup. And even if sometimes no snake comes out of it, you must know that in this moment the poison is disappearing from it.

Jan van Eyck: St. John the Evangelist from the Ghent Altarpiece, 1430-32 (click for the full picture)

On the other side, the cup also refers to a much more embarrassing event of John’s life, which he might have recalled with shame even at the age of hundred, in the island of Patmos. Namely, when with his mother and his brother James they went to Christ to ask him that in His glory they might sit on His right and left side. “You do not know what you are asking”, Jesus replied. “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” “We are able”, they replied. “Yes, you will indeed drink my cup”, Jesus predicts. (Mt 20:20-23). This cup is the cup of suffering, of which Jesus, in His prayer on the Mount of Olives, asks that “if it is possible, let it pass from me” (Mt 26:39-42). And the story of the cup of St. John also suggest that, indeed, John also drank this cup.

Piero di Cosimo: St. John the Evangelist, 1500-1505 k.

This reference to martyrdom and to the passion of Christ increased even more the importance of the cup of St. John. This is why they could represent it in itself, as an emblem, like in Hans Memling’s renowned St. Veronica panel painting (ca. 1470-75). The just 30 cm high panel was probably a personal home altar. Its obverse side shows Veronica holding the image of Christ drawn not with human hand, and its reverse the cup of St. John. Both were widely spread apotropaic images in the Middle Ages, perhaps this is why they were represented on the two sides of a home altar, but also because, through the reference to the cup of sufference, both were in direct relationship with the passion of Christ. The panel had a winding path in the course of the past centuries, including the Hungarian castle of Rohonc for a while. But just at the beginning of the 1500s, it was in possession of the Venetian Bernardo Bembo – the father of the great humanist cardinal Pietro Bembo –, and Piero di Cosimo might have copied his cup from it at that time.

The story of the blessing told above the cup is the source of the medieval custom of St. John’s blessing, when people before departure on a long road or to battle, or even before being sentenced to death, drank wine that had been blessed in the name of St. John. The custom became a liturgical event, the consacration of wine, which still takes place in the Catholic churches on the day of St. John, on December 27, and if the variety of toxins nowadays present in the wine should still leave in the form of snakes, it would significantly enrich the reptile fauna of the world. The ceremony is called already in the first printed ritual book of the Hungarian Archdiocese of Esztergom of 1485/95 as Benedictio vini seu amoris Sancti Ioanni tertio die post Domini nativitatem, “blessing of the wine, or of St. John’s love, on the third day after the birth of the Lord.” The illustration of the ritual book skilfully combines the dragons coming out from the poisoned wine with the seven-headed dragon of the Apocalypse, which was described by St. John in the Book of Revelations on the island of Patmos.

Apocalypsis Sancti Iohannis, Germany, ca. 1470

French master: St. John on the island of Patmos. The beginning of St. John’s Gospel, 1490-1500. Koninklijke Bibliothek, The Hague

And still survives from the story the custom of “the cup of St. John”, or “St. John’s blessing”, which is the name of the last cup jointly drank by the company before breaking up: Igyuk meg a János-poharat! “let’s drink the cup of St. John!” That is, may every kind of poison depart from this cup and from between us. Which we particularly wish to everyone for the next few evenings, rich in cups, and throughout the whole new year.

Hans Memling: St. John the Evangelist, ca. 1479. Detail of the St. John Altarpiece of Bruges

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