Piero di Cosimo’s masterful Saint John the Evangelist has mystified and amazed visitors since its arrival at the museum in 1961 as a gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. A half-length rendering of a well-clad, beautiful young man, calmly contemplating a serpent writhing along the rim of a golden chalice, it is simultaneously luxuriant and repellent, classically serene and entirely bizarre.
Like a majority of High Renaissance paintings, Saint John the Evangelist references a biblical narrative, specifically a story from the apocryphal Acts of John in which the Evangelist, one of Christ’s first and youngest apostles, was dared to prove his faith by drinking from a cup of poisoned wine. Saint John was not alone in accepting this challenge—two men had tried before him and both had tragically failed—but he was definitely the first to meet it. This he did by blessing the deadly drink before imbibing, causing its poison to depart in the form of a snake. Needless to say, Saint John lived to tell the tale, but this happy outcome is only indirectly implied by Piero, who chose instead to focus on the story’s dramatic and miraculous climax: Saint John raises his right hand in benediction, and the snake rears up as it gathers itself to slither away.
A native of Florence and one of its most popular painters, Piero’s long career spans the Italian High Renaissance, when artists, interested both in classical antiquity and life on earth, depicted scenes from the Bible and from Greek mythology with naturalism and grace. Saint John’s elegantly draped crimson cloak, his well-formed bulk, and his idealized features reflect these Humanist interests. But the painting’s numerous and subtle details—the fine workmanship of the chalice and the clasps in the Evangelist’s garment, the inlaid enamel in the chalice’s knop (the decorative knob at the center of its stem), and the faithful rendering of the snake’s movement and zoological specificity—indicate that Piero also shared his Northern European counterparts’ fascination with the natural world and its minutiae. Indeed, Piero had great admiration for the work of the Flemish masters, whose close study and direct observation of what was immediately around them resulted in illusionistic paintings of amazing particularity.
The art historian Bernard Berenson described Saint John the Evangelist as the “sanest, most monumental, and least freakish work of that fascinating but wayward genius,” evocatively drawing a contrast between the painting’s clarity and the reputation of the man who created it. Piero’s eccentricities are literally the stuff of legend, perpetuated by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550/1568), a set of biographies of notable Italian artists that is scrutinized as often as it is consulted. Vasari described Piero as a “lofty spirit…and “very strange,” who kept a disorderly home, let his garden grow wild, and ate nothing but the hard-cooked eggs he prepared 50 at a time while boiling glue for his paintings. According to Vasari, the obsessive Piero “could not bear the crying of babies, the coughing of men, the sound of bells, and the chanting of friars.” Whether or not all this is true, his description of Piero as a reclusive nonconformist is highly suggestive of the vivid fantasy that characterizes many of the artist’s paintings.
To arrive at a closer understanding of this important yet elusive master, the National Gallery of Art recently joined forces with the Ufizzi Gallery to organize Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence a major retrospective of Piero’s work. This landmark exhibition brought together paintings by Piero from all over the world, including Honolulu, and last January, Saint John the Evangelist began its long journey to Washington D.C. and on to Florence. At both venues, our important picture was prominently displayed and in excellent company. As Gretchen Hirschauer, the National Gallery’s associate curator of Italian and Spanish paintings and curator of the exhibition put it:
“The exhibition in Washington was an unprecedented opportunity to have so many of the artist’s paintings together for the first time, and it was particularly important to bring together works by Piero that had been associated in the past, such as the Honolulu John the Evangelist and the Rome Magdalen [a painting of the penitent saint very close in style to Saint John]. The John the Evangelist is also a significant example of Piero’s response to northern European painting, for the snake and chalice motif therein must derive from the meticulous naturalia found in [many Netherlandish] paintings.”
Sending an artwork out on loan requires a considerable amount of work behind the scenes. Once a loan is requested, curators must discuss its scholarly merits, conservators must examine it, registrars must coordinate its crating and shipping, and trustees must vote on its approval. Finally, a qualified staff member must accompany the loan to the exhibition and ensure its safe return, and, in the case of Saint John the Evangelist, that lucky individual was the museum’s Head of Collections Pauline Sugino. According to Pauline, getting the painting from Florence to Honolulu last month was no small feat, but “a long two-day journey in cold winter weather to deliver it to the National Gallery.” All told, she reports, “the return to Honolulu took three days from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to Rome, to JFK New York, to Newark, and to Honolulu, through more cold and blustery autumn weather.” But, Florence being Florence, Pauline was able to “make up for the hardship duty [by enjoying] gelato every day in Italy, free entry to Piero di Cosimo and spectacular collections, and meeting and working with my counterparts in two of the world’s best museums.”
Welcome back Saint John the Evangelist—now back on view in the museum’s Medieval and Renaissance gallery.