Miniature Painting of Saint John the Evangelist with Silver Frame
Despite its diminutive size and straightforward composition, a closer look at this oil painting on copper of Saint John the Evangelist reveals a complex devotional image. The red curtain indicates that John sits within an interior space, yet the artist has included minute details that allude to various events from the saint’s life. In his left hand John holds a golden chalice from which a snake-like creature emerges. This refers to John being put to the test by a Pagan priest of Ephesus; as recounted by Jacobus de Vorgaine in his Golden Legend (1228-1298), the priest gave John a poisoned chalice, but when John blessed it the poison escaped in the form of a small two-headed dragon. The celestial appearance of the Virgin Mary, the open book on the table, and the eagle holding a quill and ink well in its mouth allude to Saint John’s apocalyptic vision on the island of Patmos where he wrote the Book of Revelation, the last chapter of the New Testament. The artist’s close attention to detail extends to the tears that fill John’s eyes, as the saint looks passionately up at his vision of the Mother of God. Likely used by a wealthy individual for private contemplation in a home or monastery, the viewer may have taken John’s fervent devoutness to the Virgin Mary as a model for his or her own devotions.
The small painting is surrounded by an elaborate, neoclassical silver frame. As it encircles the saint, the finely worked silver underscores the preciousness of the devotional image. The frame is also a work of art in of itself, composed of delicate textile, floral, and vegetal motifs. At top and bottom, the silver forms ribbons tied into loose bows. Pomegranates sit among the ribbons and on either side of the frame are bunches of grapes that hang from vines. Although the painting may date to the 1700s or earlier, the frame’s style and imagery is consistent with other silver frames made in Cuzco, Peru in the early 1800s.
--Sabena Kull, 2017-18 Mayer Fellow for Spanish Colonial Art