St. John, writing the Book of Revelation
by Carlo Dolci. SN 137.
By Phillis LeTellier, 2/29/2000
Oil on copper, 103/16 x 81/8 inches. From the collections of Sir George Holford,
Westonbirt; bought at Christie's auction by John Ringling in July, 1927.
St John, who is often shown as a young, beardless youth with flowing curly hair
accompanied by his attributes of the eagle - symbol of divine inspiration - and a book,
gazes upward and listens to his divine message (Revelation). Like all of Dolci's works,
this small devotional painting is exquisitely painted and the youthful saint's ecstatic
expression with upraised 'wet' eyes and opened mouth are all typical stylistic details.
Two larger versions of this painting are in Berlin and in the Hermitage, St Petersburg.
The latter carries an inscription with the artists name and a date, 1647. A date in the
1640's seems stylistically correct for these paintings because the influence of his
master, Vignali, is still apparent in the generally soft treatment. Dolci's painting of St
John is considered Florentine Baroque or Mannerist. It is typical of his illusionistic
renditions of idealized saints done with imperceptible brushwork. His work is known for
passionate religiosity and a sensitively virtuoso technique. It was said about him that
his work 'surpassed nature in its beauty'.
St John, brother of James, the Apostle and Evangelist was the youngest of
the twelve Apostles of Christ. He was called 'the disciple whom Jesus loved' and is often
depicted leaning his head on the breast of Christ at the Last Supper. John was present at
the Crucifixion, together with the three Marys and Christ asked him to care for his
mother, Mary. She is said to have lived with John until her death, in fulfillment of
Christ's wishes. After her death, John traveled about Judea preaching the gospel with St
Peter. He is said to have gone to Asia Minor, where he founded the Seven Churches referred
to in Revelations. Eventually he went to live in Ephesus, where he endured great
persecution from Emperor Domitian. He was then exiled to the island of Patmos, the place
of his Revelation. After some time, he was able to return to Ephesus where he died a
natural death at a very advanced age. He is said to have dug his own grave in the shape of
Carlo Dolci was born in Florence in 1616 and, as a child prodigy, trained there with
Jacopo Vignali beginning in 1625. He assimilated Vignali's poignant and lyrical qualities;
but his style was more tight and precise. He was renown for his fine portraiture. He
became a member of the Accademia del Disegnao and began to paint a large number of works
for private patrons: several paintings commissioned by the Medici family now hang in the
Palazzo Pitti. He chose to paint the most emphatic type of religious painting: primarily
saints in adoration or ecstasy rather than the more popular Florentine seventeenth-century
Old Testament subjects, often lascivious in content, like Joseph and Potiphar's Wife or
Lot and His Daughters, which were not agreeable to Dolci. The deeply religious context of
his work, done with such passion and intensity, naturally was popular with the high clergy
of the Catholic Church and supported the Counter Reformation movement. He was favored by
the Medicis and his work reflected the petrifying religiosity of the Court under Grand
Duchess Vittoria and her superstitious son, Cosimo III. His mature style was complex and
sophisticated. Intended for aristocratic circles, Dolci's work enjoyed an international
acclaim in his own lifetime. His last years were spent in anxiety and sadness due to his
depression resulting from peer criticism. He died in 1686.