El Greco - John the Evangelist and John the Baptist

by Alexandra Tuschka


The less Bible-loving contemporaries among us - that is, presumably most of us - can sometimes get confused about the two namesakes in the Bible. Therefore, the two important figures with the name "John" are distinguished by their epithets "the Baptist" and "the Evangelist/Apostle". Sometimes the latter is also called "the favourite disciple". Although there are doubts that the "favourite disciple" and the "evangelist" should have been the same person, they are usually equated and have a common iconography in art history. One can therefore distinguish the "Baptist" from the "Evangelist" quite well by his attributes, as this work by El Greco vividly illustrates. On the left we see the Evangelist - a young, beardless, blond and pale youth in a robe of red and blue. In his hand he holds a golden chalice from which a dragon rises. At his feet sits an eagle. Opposite him stands the thin, haggard and somewhat feral John the Baptist. He comes into the picture with a camel skin, a cross of reeds and a lamb. The lamb holds the inscription "Agnus Dei" (the "Lamb of God"), which cannot quite be seen. This refers to Jesus Christ, who is often referred to in this way by John. Both men are barefoot and turn their faces towards each other as if in dialogue. This scene takes place on a rock with little vegetation, we can see some houses in the distance. The clouds are streaking through the picture. They seem a little threatening.

The figure on the left has raised his hand in blessing and is blessing the chalice. In this way he alludes to a traditional episode according to which John was once given a poisoned chalice to the Evangelist. The latter recognised the attempt, crossed the chalice and then drank from the cup. He took no harm. The figure also owes its veneration as a wine saint to this story. The eagle, in turn, is the ancestral symbolic animal of the canonical evangelists, of which he is one. The eagle was assigned to John alongside the bull, the lion and the angel because his Gospel testifies to a high theology and contains inspiring words. John the Baptist, on the other hand, lived for quite some time in asceticism in the desert, so he is usually depicted - as here - emaciated and clothed only in the camel skin.

But what are these two men doing together on one canvas? Both figures have met here not only because of the similarity of their names. While the Baptist is considered the forerunner of the Messiah and the last prophet and thus represents the Old Testament, the Evangelist and favourite disciple is a representative of the New Testament. Both figures have in common that they encountered Jesus in their lives. While the Baptist refers to the beginning of all life through his closeness to the Old Testament, the Evangelist addresses the end of the world in his Apocalypse.


Artistically, this juxtaposition was equally appealing. The heavily aged, bearded Baptist, the body marked by his asceticism are juxtaposed with the beautiful youth with the moving robe. The integration of the animals also reinforces the type-like and symbolic effect. In Anthony van Dyck's work, the animals are more strongly integrated into the action. The eagle, for example, flies dynamically into the picture, presumably to dictate the Gospel to the disciple. The latter points to the thick book on his lap, thus supporting his role as one of the four writers of the New Testament. The Baptist, in turn, opens his body connects to the centre. The sheep has also positioned itself there and is looking upwards. Both men stand between an architecture of columns. He has placed the attributes of the Baptist on the ground.


El Greco - John the Evangelist and John the Baptist

Oil on canvas, 1600 - 1610, 110 x 86 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid


Anthoys van Dyck - John the Evangelist and John the Baptist

Oil on canvas, 1620, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid