(active early 14th century in Konstanz)

St John Resting on Jesus' Chest

c. 1320
Walnut, 141 x 73 x 48 cm
Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp

Medieval art reached a peak in around 1300, when a fundamental thematic renewal occurred. Artist were inspired by a steadily growing spirituality. Mysticism - in which the believer seeks to become one with Christ - ceased to be the privilege of ascetics, theologists and the educated, and was opened up to any Christian who wished to cultivate a personal, inner bond with God. Nuns played a key part in this process. Works of art expressing the mystic experience, such as the Jesus and John group, were primarily found in convents.

This group was carved by Master Heinrich of Konstanz for the Dominican convent in Sankt-Katharinenthal (Switzerland). It is one of the finest and best-known, although not the oldest, of a smallish group of similar ensembles produced in the period for the region's convents.

The carving shows Christ and St John sitting on a bench. John rests his head on Christ's chest, his eyes closed in devotion. His right hand rests in that of Christ, who places a loving arm around his shoulder.

The actual theme of the piece is the inner unity of the two figures. The image expresses the loving submission of the disciple to the teacher and God's love of mankind. The artist conveys this spiritual dimension very convincingly. The two figures form a a single entity. No space is left between them, and the arm and hand movements seemingly cause them to merge. The subtle drapery is conceived in such a way that the robes virtually flow into one another, further heightening the unity.

The motif has often been viewed as a prototype what are known in German as 'Andachtsbilder'. These are images which express a religious theme in a poetic and emotional way, free of any liturgical or theological context. They were designed to bring the viewer, through contemplation, to a state of identification with the portrayed figure or subject. Such images are typical of the 14th and 15th century and often belong to the sphere of private devotion. This Jesus and John group, by contrast, stood on an important altar in the convent church, where it functioned as a focus for the congregation. Nevertheless, it still undoubtedly served as an Andachtsbild. The bond shown here between Jesus and John represents the goal of every nun. The image can also be interpreted as an allegorical representation of the theme of the nun as a Bride of Christ. Its display on an altar might have had a eucharistic significance, too, by linking the spiritual nourishment of John's unification with Christ with the mystery of the Eucharist and the celebration of Mass.

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