St John, along with his brother St James Major, was one of the Twelve Apostles. He worked with his father Zebedee in the family fishing business on Lake Galilee. It was beside this lake that Christ first called the two brothers to leave their nets and to follow him (Matthew 4:21-22; 10:3).
With the exception of St Peter, no apostle is mentioned as many times in the New Testament as St John. With St Peter and his brother St James Major, he belonged to Christ’s inner circle. Although described as “uneducated and ordinary”, St John went on to play a leading role in the Early Church (Acts 4:13; Galatians 2:9).
Traditionally, St John was considered to be the author of the fourth gospel. However, he is never actually named in the text. The fourth gospel says that it was written by an unnamed person, referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:20-25). This has led some scholars to ask if this person really was St John the Apostle, although the Church maintains that he did indeed write the gospel (Dei Verbum, 18).
There is agreement, however, that St John’s Gospel was the last to be completed. His gospel is very different to the other three. Rather than cover the same ground as them, for the most part St John chose to share other aspects of the life and teaching of Christ. He recorded examples of what Christ had preached to the educated people of Judaea and Jerusalem, as well as the higher teaching he shared with the disciples in private.
St John includes a number of long speeches given by Christ. Some of his major themes include God’s love for the world, the revelation of Christ as the Son of God and the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He also includes a number of Christ’s “I am” sayings, through which he reveals different aspects of Jesus’ life and mission.
It was to “the disciple whom Jesus loved” that Christ entrusted his mother, while dying on the cross (John 19:25-27). This deep personal connection with Christ and the Virgin Mary, as well as his roles as both apostle and evangelist, made St John a major figure both in the Church and in late Christian art.
As a result, he is often pictured at the foot of the cross, or being called by Christ with his brother St James Major. When depicted alone, he is usually identified by a symbol. This might be a book, a pen, or sometimes an eagle (a symbol drawn from Revelation 4:7). An easy way to identify him in a scene is to look for a young man without a beard. This is because his name in Italian, Giovanni, is very similar to the Italian word for ‘young’ (giovane).
Another common way of picturing St John is to depict him holding a poisoned chalice, as in this example. This image is based on an ancient tradition that he once drank poisoned wine and survived. This story may be linked to Christ’s prophecy that St John would ‘drink of his cup’ or the gospel reference to drinking poison unharmed (Mark 10:35-40; 16:18). In any case, St John’s cup often contains a serpent or dragon to symbolise the dangerous contents.
This stained glass window of St John is found within St Catherine’s church, West Drayton. Created by the Lavers & Westlake firm and dating to 1891, it’s one of a set picturing all Twelve Apostles . The scroll unfurled behind St John extends across all the windows of the apostles and contains the words of the Apostles’ Creed in Latin.
Following tradition, St John is depicted here without a beard as a signal that he was a young man when originally called by Christ. Holding the poisoned chalice in his right hand, he wears the traditional vestments of a Catholic priest (chasuble, stole and alb).
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Where to find this work of art
St Catherine’s, West Drayton
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