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Work Saint John the Evangelist

Department of Paintings: Spanish painting

Saint John the Evangelist

© 1992 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Spanish painting

De Vergnette François

Saint John the Evangelist is blessing the poisoned chalice given him by a pagan priest of Ephesus to test him, but the poison escapes from the chalice in the form of a small two-headed dragon, as Jacobus de Voragine recounts in his Golden Legend (1228-1298). This canvas was painted by Alonso Cano for the altarpiece of a convent in Seville. The most versatile artist of the Spanish Golden Age, Cano was also a talented sculptor, which shows here in the impression of volume he achieves in the saint.

The test of the poisoned chalice or the triumph of faith

Saint John the Evangelist is depicted holding a chalice, an allusion to his being put to the test by the high priest of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. The high priest said to him: "If you want me to believe in your god, I will give you some poison to drink and, if it does not harm you, it means that your god is the true God." Thus the picure shows Saint John making the gesture of blessing which was to neutralize the poison escaping from the chalice in the form of a small two-headed dragon. He was then able to drink the potion, according to the legend. The story was popularized through the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, but was inspired by the words of the Gospels. In St. Matthew, Jesus says to St. John and his brother: "You shall indeed share my cup." And in St. Mark's Gospel, the risen Christ sends his apostles out into the world promising them, among other things, protection against poison: "Faith will bring with it these miracles . . . if believers drink any deadly poison, they will come to no harm."

The most versatile artist of the Golden Age

This painting was part of the altarpiece dedicated to St. John the Evangelist that was commissioned in 1635 from Alonso Cano by the convent of Hieronymite nuns of Santa Paula in Seville. The Louvre picture was placed, together with another depicting St. James the Greater, St. John's brother (Musée du Louvre, RF 1977-3), on either side of the tabernacle at the base of the altarpiece. Cano was responsible not only for the paintings but also for the architecture of the altarpiece. He was an unusual personality, being at the same time architect, painter, and sculptor. He trained as a painter in the workshop of Francisco Pacheco (1564-1654), where he met Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), with whom he remained friends all his life. He is thought to have studied sculpture with Juan Martinez Montañes. The commission for the Santa Paula altarpiece in Seville was the last one Cano received in that city before leaving for Madrid in 1638. Like other painters from Seville in the first half of the seventeenth century, in particular Velázquez, he was attracted by Spain's capital city, but finished his life in his home town of Granada in Andalusia. His last task there, immediately before he died, was to produce some drawings of the cathedral front.

A sculptural painting

Cano's style is very different from that of his contemporaries, with his painting echoing his work as a sculptor. Cano suggests volume in the figure by painting him at an angle with hard, precise contours. The saint stands out against the dark background, and his reaction of surprise at the miracle has been extremely well interpreted by the artist. Cano's evangelist is thus very different from the calm figures of Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664). Furthermore, his clothes are painted in the light and delicate colors associated with the classical Bolognese painters (the Carraches and Guido Reni). Later on, in Madrid, Cano's style would be marked by the same search for ideal beauty that was characteristic of those painters.


- GERARD POWELL Véronique, RESSORT Claudie, in Écoles espagnole et portugaise, catalogue du département des Peintures du musée du Louvre, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 2002, pp. 143-145.

Technical description

  • Alonso CANO (Granada, 1601 - Granada, 1667)

    Saint John the Evangelist


  • H. 0.54 m; W. 0.36 m

  • Acquired in 1977 , 1977

    R.F. 1977-2

  • Paintings

    Denon wing
    1st floor
    Painting in Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries
    Room 732

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