Bosch’s St. John on Patmos (1504-5)

St John the Evangelist, the mystical writer of Revelations, is depicted on one side of this panel by Heironymous Bosch receiving his inspiration from the Virgin in the sky. This and another painting by Bosch, St. John in the Wilderness (already discussed), form a pair. John sits on the island of Patmos, where the revelation came to him, but his pose – though clearly a writer's – might also be an artist's with pen or brush in hand. Indeed the observer's inability to distinguish between a writer writing on paper and an artist drawing is often used in art to convey a self-referential meaning.  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Bosch, St. John on Patmos (1504-5) Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

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In this case an insect, with what is thought to be a self-portrait of Bosch, sits next to St. John, clearly suggesting that the latter is the artist’s alter ego. The artist's portrayal as an insect is part of a long but little-known tradition in art history of artists showing their sense of unity with nature by representing themselves as animals.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Self-portrait detail of Bosch's St. John on Patmos (recto)

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Of particular interest is the reverse of the panel where a circle painted with scenes from Christ’s Passion surrounds the dark outer rim. It resembles an iris and pupil. In the mystical traditions that so many artists have followed, one of which Bosch clearly did, Christ’s life is depicted as a guide for our own interior path. Its depiction, then, around the outer rim of an eye confirms what seems obvious: that Bosch painted his inner life not his outer one. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Bosch, Scenes of Christ's Passion (verso of St. John on Patmos)

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In addition, just as the scene on Patmos is literally painted behind an eye (on the other side of the panel), its pair (left) shows St. John the Baptist as though literally behind his eyeballs too, as I have explained in a separate entry. [See Bosch's St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness)

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Captions for image(s) above:

Bosch, St. John in the Wilderness (1504-5)

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In summary, Bosch's pair of Johannine paintings - St John the Baptist in the Wilderness and St. John on Patmos, both painted during 1504-5 - each show representations of their respective saint as though he were metaphorically behind his eyes and in his mind. The former converts the eyes and nerves into plants and bulbs while the latter depicts St John on the other side of a panel depicting a giant eyeball. That means, whichever way we look at the images, we're behind the eyeball.

Notes:

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 08 Jun 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.