Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 25, 2003
Jeffrey F. Hamburger St. John the Divine: The Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 347 pp.; 26 color ills.; 156 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0520228774)
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In St. John the Divine: The Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology, Jeffrey Hamburger investigates the complex relationships forged in the later Middle Ages among art, mysticism, and visionary experience. In so doing, he continues the stimulating work he began in earlier, groundbreaking studies such as The Rothschild Canticles: Art and Mysticism in Flanders and the Rhineland ca. 1300 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990) and The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany (New York: Zone Books, 1998). The specific task Hamburger sets for himself in this newest effort is to understand a group of approximately two-dozen enigmatic images, found mostly in manuscripts, that feature John the Evangelist as their central subject. These pictures, which range in date from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries, do not fit into any previously identified tradition of representations of John, nor do they share with each other any discernable model–copy relationships. Rather, they are all independent pictorial explorations of a cluster of ideas deriving from the Evangelist’s status in the Middle Ages as a privileged spiritual seer. This status resulted in large part from the strongly theological character of John’s Gospel, the prologue of which proclaims the eternal oneness of the Word with God and explicates the Word’s assumption of humanity at the Incarnation (“and the Word became flesh…”). John’s special reputation was also based on the perception of him as the author of the Book of Revelation, with its visionary accounts of the heavenly realm, and as the intimate of Christ. In this last regard John is best known for having laid his head on the breast of the Savior during the Last Supper and for having been commended by Christ on the Cross to become the adopted son of the Crucified’s mother, Mary.

What these pictures of the multifaceted Evangelist have in common above all else, Hamburger argues in his introduction, is the depiction of John as a Christomorph and, more precisely, as assimilated to Christ in his divinity. This emphasis distinguishes the pictures in question from the much larger number of medieval images that present holy figures, dedicated in their own lives to the imitation of Christ, with attributes of the Son’s humanity (such as depictions of Francis of Assisi with his stigmata). The author’s goal is to explain why John should have been portrayed in this fashion. As part of his answer, Hamburger seeks to reveal how these images of the Evangelist also explore, and give validating pictorial expression to, two elusive but intertwined concepts. One is the controversial doctrine of deification, which likens salvation to the individual’s assumption of divinity after death, through assimilation with God. The other is the theology of the imago dei, which is rooted in the claim of Genesis 1:26 that God created man in his own “image and likeness,” and which describes salvation both as a restoration of the individual to his prelapsarian state as a perfect reflection of the Creator, and as an eternal, unobstructed gazing upon the face of God. Because of its evocative vocabulary of similitude and vision, the theology of the imago dei could be interpreted as positing a critical role for the visual image in the salvific process, and Hamburger is eager to demonstrate how the pictures of the Evangelist under investigation take up precisely this challenge.

The book itself is organized thematically rather than chronologically, a structure Hamburger justifies by citing the lack of close connections—in iconography, form, and provenance—among the images themselves. The introduction lays out the central issues of the study as well as its methodological underpinnings, locating the latter primarily in the conviction that medieval images (especially monastic ones) were commonly designed to interact with texts in a conscious, complicated fashion. Chapter 1 then treats depictions of John in the guise of the Logos-Creator, a characterization informed by exegesis that related John’s gospel prologue to the opening verses of the Book of Genesis. Chapter 2 looks at images of John in his role as the archetypal theologian, the peerless elucidator of the mysteries of the Christian divinity. It also discusses how John was established both as an imitator of Christ in this respect and as an object of imitation himself for the monastic viewers of these images. Chapters 3 and 4 examine how pictures associated the Evangelist typologically with two earlier figures, John the Baptist and the prophet Ezekiel, to emphasize in yet different ways John’s special gifts of spiritual insight. Chapter 5 focuses on a cycle of pictures in a gradual from the Dominican convent of St. Katharinenthal (ca. 1312), which celebrates the divinized Evangelist in the context of the liturgy. Chapter 6 continues to explore this relationship between John and the liturgy. It looks at pictures and texts that link ideas about the Eucharist to the presentation of the Evangelist, specifically in his guise as witness of Christ’s Passion and as the adopted son of Mary at the Crucifixion. The last two chapters build on the preceding ones but move in a new direction. Concentrating on the mystical writings of Gertrude of Helfta (1256–1301/2) in chapter 7 and Meister Eckhart (ca.1260–1328) in chapter 8, they investigate how attention to John was used to theorize the crucial roles played by both vision and image (mental and physical) in the Christian devotional quest for union with God. After a brief conclusion, the book culminates with useful appendices presenting two texts relevant to the cult of John in the later Middle Ages: the poem “Verbum dei deo natum,” in Latin, English, and Middle High German versions; and a fifteenth-century German sermon for the feast day of John the Evangelist.

Hamburger’s study is impressive for the way in which it brings together this diverse array of images and texts to reveal the existence of something like a coherent exegetical enterprise, one that had previously gone undetected by historians of art, theology, and devotional culture alike. Given the author’s skill in this regard at gathering and reconciling disparate phenomena, across centuries and media, and given the book’s stated topic—images of the deified John throughout medieval art—this particular reader would have enjoyed seeing Hamburger pay more attention to Anglo-Saxon portrayals of John, both in pictures and texts. As Jennifer O’Reilly and others have shown, the Anglo-Saxons played a key role in establishing John’s reputation as an exemplary spiritual seer, frequently through innovative imagery. The depiction of John in the early eleventh-century Grimbald Gospels (London, Brit. Lib. MS Add. 34890, fol. 114v), which shows the Evangelist surrounded by heavenly choirs as he gazes up toward three near-identical christological deities, and which Hamburger does not discuss, is one example. How this creative and sophisticated earlier material relates (or does not relate) to the later German imagery and texts upon which Hamburger focuses must remain for now a topic for others to pursue. Hamburger’s study might also have benefited from a greater precision on occasion in the use of the term “Christomorph,” as applied to John. In examining an Ottonian portrait of the Evangelist (fig. 33), Hamburger writes: “In this case John assumes some of the characteristics of Christ without actually being shown as a Christomorph” (50). Later in the book, however, this critical distinction is not always enforced. If it had been, the author’s arguments concerning those examples where John’s identity was fully and undeniably merged with that of Christ would in fact have been strengthened.

These latter observations, it must be said, are only a byproduct of the high expectations that the work of an art historian of Hamburger’s abilities engenders. Overall, the book represents a significant contribution to the field on at least three counts. First, the study provides concrete and extensive pictorial and textual evidence of late medieval imitation of Christ concentrated on the Savior’s divinity rather than his humanity. These findings profitably complicate traditional notions of late medieval devotion and artistic production as focused with steadily increasing intensity only on the humanity of Christ. Second, the book adds a valuable new dimension to our growing understanding of how medieval images were designed to speak—through their content and form—of their own unique and essential roles in Christian theology and devotion. As Hamburger’s book attests, medieval makers of images could be every bit as aware of the medium-specific properties of their art as were artists of later, postmedieval periods, though this awareness of course manifested itself in the Middle Ages in different ways and to different ends. Third, St. John the Divine constitutes another strong offering in the continuing revival of attention to art as theology in the Middle Ages. As the author himself notes (1), such attention has in recent decades fallen out of favor, with only a small number of art historians bucking the trend. Hamburger, however, through his nuanced embedding of these portrayals of John in their original pictorial, textual, liturgical, paraliturgical, and private devotional settings, demonstrates that the richness of theological content in innumerable medieval images, and their intricate relationships to scripture and exegesis, are not the invention of modern art historians enthralled with the iconographic method but are instead authentic and intended qualities of the images themselves. Hamburger’s newest book, in summary, is deeply learned, eloquently argued, wide ranging in scope, productively interdisciplinary in approach, ambitious and innovative in its claims, and—as a bonus—sumptuously illustrated. It thus deserves to take its place on the author’s lengthening list of important scholarly achievements.

Peter Low
Associate Professor, Department of Art, Williams College

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