DÜRER, Albrecht
(b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528, Nürnberg)

The Penance of St John Chrysostom

c. 1496
Engraving, 180 x 119 mm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

St John Chrysostom, a poor student at school, in desperation kissed the image of the Holy Virgin. To the amazement of his fellow students he henceforth wore a golden circle around his mouth and therefore was called "golden-mouthed" (in Greek, chrysostomos). The Pope ordained him a priest at the age of sixteen, but St John Chrysostom felt unworthy of the priesthood and became a hermit in the desert. There the Emperor's daughter, having lost her way one day, sought refuge in his cave. Upon her insistence he admitted her and they sinned. As penance he vowed to walk on all fours until forgiven. Years later the Empress gave birth to another child who refused baptism except from St John Chrysostom. Everyone despaired of finding him, when some hunters brought a strange wild animal to the festivities. The child, seeing the animal, said, "You are forgiven." St John stood up and shed his long moss-covered hair, and the Pope recognized him. The courtiers searched the desert and found the Emperor's daughter, who had also survived the ordeal in the wilderness.

Mrs. Heaton, Dürer's first biographer in English, describes the scene very poignantly: "The princess is quite naked and more graceful in form and more beautiful of face than most of Dürer's female figures. There is a certain tenderness about her that makes us think that perhaps Dürer's sympathies were not entirely with the repentant saint who is seen in the background."

The composition was perhaps suggested to Dürer by Jacopo de Barbari's engraving Cleopatra (or vice versa).

Raphael must certainly have known this engraving since he borrowed the landscape and the castle, which appear the same in the Oxford drawing for Raphael's Pasadena Madonna and Child. Dürer's figures, however, were of no interest to Raphael.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.