What’s the Story? The Saint John Altarpiece
The Saint John Altarpiece follows the form of one type of fourteenth-century altarpiece, with a large central image flanked by smaller narrative scenes. The center panel shows the Crucifixion with the young John the Evangelist looking out to the viewer on the right. While the story of the Crucifixion is told in the Gospel of John, the source for the other episodes was The Golden Legend (Legenda sanctorum), a popular collection of stories about the major saints compiled in the thirteenth century by Jacobus de Voragine, a priest. Accounts of each scene are available below. Comparison of these texts with the paintings in the Saint John Altarpiece reveals Ghissi’s gifts as a master storyteller in the burgeoning Renaissance tradition of clear, human-centered narrative.
Saint John is depicted at right, looking out to the viewer. Younger and without a beard, he wears the same blue and pink robes as he does in the rest of the altarpiece. The widow kneeling beside him likely commissioned the altarpiece, indicating that Saint John was either her patron saint or the patron saint of the chapel. The Crucifixion precedes Saint John’s story in The Golden Legend.
The Resurrection of Drusiana
John returned to Ephesus with honor, and the crowds ran out to meet him, crying: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” As he entered the city, a woman named Drusiana, who had been a dear friend of his and has looked forward more than anyone to his return, was being carried out for burial. This woman’s kinsmen, and the widows and orphans of Ephesus, said to Saint John: “Here we are about to bury Drusiana, who, following your directions, nourished all of us with the word of God. Yearning for your return she used to say: ‘Ah, if only I could see the apostle of God once more before I die!’ And now you have come back, and she was not able to see you.” John thereupon ordered them to set down the bier and unbind the body, and said: “Drusiana, may my Lord Jesus Christ raise you to life! Arise, go to your house and prepare food for me!” Drusiana got up and went straight to her house as the apostle had commanded, and it seemed to her that she had awakened from sleep, not from death.
Saint John Reproving the Philosopher Crato
The day after the apostle arrived in Ephesus, a philosopher named Crato called the people together in the public square to show them how they should despise the world. He had ordered two young men, brothers and very rich, to sell their entire patrimony, to buy the most priceless gems with the proceeds, and to smash them to bits while everybody watched. The apostle, however, happened to be passing, and he called the philosopher and denounced this sort of contempt of the world, citing three reasons. For one thing it wins the praise of men but is condemned by divine judgment. For another, such contempt cures no vices and therefore is worthless, as any medicine that never cures a disease is said to be worthless. Thirdly, contempt of riches is meritorious only when they are given away to the poor, as the Lord said to the rich young man: “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give to the poor.”
Hearing this, Crato replied: “If your master is truly God, and if it is his will that these gems should benefit the poor, then you put them together again, thus winning glory for him as I have won the applause of men.” Saint John gathered the fragments of the gems in his hand and prayed; and the stones were restored to their former shape. At this the philosopher and the two young men believed, and they sold the gems and gave the money to the poor.
Acteus and Eugenius Implore Saint John to Restore Their Wealth
Their example induced two other young highborn young men to sell everything they owned and give the proceeds to the poor, and they became the apostle’s followers. But one day they saw their former slaves flaunting elegant and costly raiment while they themselves had but one cloak between them, and they began to have regrets. Saint John saw this in their gloomy expression, so he had some sticks and pebbles brought to him from the seashore, and turned them into gold and precious stones. Then he sent the youths to show their new possessions to all the goldsmiths and jewelers, and they came back a week later to tell him that those experts had never seen gold so pure or gems so fine. The apostle said to them: “Go and buy back the lands you sold! Since you have lost the treasures of heaven, flourish, but only to wither; be rich for a time, but only to be beggars for eternity!” He then went on to speak against riches, enumerating six reasons that should deter us from an inordinate desire for wealth. The first is in Scripture, and he told the story of the gluttonous rich man, whom God rejected, and the poor man Lazarus, whom God rewarded. The second comes from nature itself: man is born naked and without wealth, and he dies without wealth. The third is seen in creation: just as the sun, the moon, and the stars, the rains and the air, are common to all and their benefits shared by all, so among men everything should be held in common. The next reason is fortune itself. The rich man is the slave of his money; he does not possess it, it possesses him; and he is the slave of the devil, because the Gospel says that the lover of money is a slave of mammon. Fifth comes care and worry: the rich worry day and night about how to get more and how to keep what they have. Sixth and last, he showed that wealth involves the risk of loss. In the acquisition of riches there lies a twofold evil: it leads to swollen pride in the present life and to eternal damnation in the next; and for those doomed to damnation there is a double loss – of divine grace at present and of eternal glory in the future.
The Resurrection of Satheus
While Saint John was carrying on this discourse against riches, a young man who had been married only a month before was carried out for burial. His mother, his widow, and the rest of the mourners came and prostrated themselves at the apostle’s feet, begging him to revive him in the name of God, as he had done for Drusiana. The apostle, after weeping and praying for a long time, raised the dead man to life.
Satheus Speaking to Acteus and Eugenius / Acteus and Eugenius Repenting before Saint John
The apostle ordered the resurrected man to tell the two disciples already mentioned how great a penalty they had incurred and how much glory they had lost. He did so, speaking at length about the glories of paradise and the pains of hell, which he had seen; and he said: “O wretched men, I saw your angels weeping and the demons gloating over you!” He further told them they had lost eternal palaces built of shining gems, filled with banquets, abounding in delights and lasting joys. He also spoke about the eight pains of hell, which are named in the following verse:
Vermes et tenebrae flagellum frigus et ignis Daemonis adspectus scelerum confusio luctus,
i.e., worms, darkness, the lash, cold, fire, the sight of the devil, remorse for sins, grief.
The revived man and the other two then fell at the apostle’s feet and implored him to obtain mercy for them. Saint John replied: “Do penance for thirty days, and during that time pray that the sticks and stones may revert to their former nature.” After this was accomplished, he said to them: “Go and put those things back where you found them.” They did so, and the sticks and stones became again what they had been before. Thereupon the young men received the grace of all the virtues that had been theirs.
Saint John Causes a Pagan Temple to Collapse
When Saint John had preached throughout the region of Asia, the idol-worshipers stirred up a riot among the populace, and they dragged him to the temple of Diana and tried to force him to offer sacrifice to the goddess. Then the saint proposed this alternative: if by invoking Diana they overturned the church of Christ, he would offer sacrifice to the idols; but if by invoking Christ he destroyed Diana’s temple, they would believe in Christ. To this proposal the greater number of the people gave their consent. When all had gone out of the building, the apostle prayed, the temple collapsed to the ground, and the statue of Diana was reduced to dust.
Saint John Drinking from the Poisoned Cup
Thereupon the high priest Aristodemus incited a still greater commotion among the people, and two parties were at the point of coming to blows. The apostle asked the priest: “What do you want me to do to restore order?” He answered: “If you want me to believe in your God, I will give you poison to drink. If it does you no harm, it will be clear that your master is the true God.” John replied: “Do as you say!” “But first,” came the answer, “I want you to see it kill some others, to make you fear its power the more.” So Aristodemus hied himself to the proconsul, obtained the release of two criminals condemned to decapitation, and, in the presence of the crowd, gave them the poison. They drank it and fell dead. Then the apostle took the cup, armed himself with the sign of the cross, drained the drink, and suffered no harm; and all present began to praise God.
Saint John Baptizing Aristodemus
Aristodemus, however, was not yet convinced and said: “If you can bring the two dead men back to life, I will not hesitate to believe.” The apostle handed him his cloak. “Why do you give me your cloak?” the other asked. John’s answer: “To make you think twice and give up your unbelief!” “No mantle of yours will ever make me believe!” the priest retorted. John said: “Go and spread this cloak over the corpses, and say, ‘The apostle of Christ has sent me to you, that you may rise in the name of Christ.’” He did as he was bidden, and the dead men arose at once. Then the high priest and the proconsul believed, and the apostle baptized them and their families. At a later time they built a church in honor of Saint John.
Text from: Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. William Granger Ryan, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 50-55.