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John the Evangelist is often depicted in art as effeminate (e.g. long hair, clean shaven, gentle face), as illustrated below.

This is especially apparent when compared with other males in the same painting (e.g. Da Vinci's).

Obviously the artists didn't know what he actually looked like, but is there a written tradition that would explain this common depiction.

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Da Vinci — Close-up from The Last Supper, circa 1497

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Piero di Cosimo (Piero di Lorenzo) — St. John the Evangelist, circa 1500

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    Re clean shaven, could it instead be a reference to his youth? Apr 13, 2022 at 19:08
  • effeminate or feminine? Those aren't the same things
    – eques
    Apr 13, 2022 at 21:09
  • Effeminate is also "soft" and hence "unmanly" in the sense of lacking masculine moral qualities. Effeminancy can also be ascribed to women, but it's more thought of in relation to men. While effeminate has moral connotations, feminine does not and is largely about appearances. A man could be described as having feminine hair (for example) without being effeminate.
    – eques
    Apr 13, 2022 at 21:18
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    It's certainly not universally true that he is depicted that way. And he is usually considered the youngest apostle, so it may be more "youthful" than "effeminate". Apr 13, 2022 at 21:33
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    Presumably they have misunderstood why John laid his head in Jesus' bosom. Which is rather sad.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 13, 2022 at 22:55

2 Answers 2

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Is there a written tradition that would explain why John the Evangelist is often depicted in art as effeminate?

There seems to be no known written tradition to indicate this. In art, St. John is generally depicted in one of two ways: the young beardless type is early (as in a 4th-century sarcophagus from Rome), and this type came to be preferred (though not exclusively) in the medieval West. In the Byzantine world the evangelist is portrayed as old, with long white beard and hair.

The legends that contributed most to medieval iconography are mainly derived from the apocryphal Acts of John. These Acts are also the source of the notion that John became a disciple as a very young man. Iconographically, the young beardless type is early (as in a 4th-century sarcophagus from Rome), and this type came to be preferred (though not exclusively) in the medieval West. In the Byzantine world the evangelist is portrayed as old, with long white beard and hair, usually carrying his Gospel. - St. John the Apostle

Early Christian art usually represents St. John with an eagle, symbolizing the heights to which he rises in the first chapter of his Gospel. The chalice as symbolic of St. John, which, according to some authorities, was not adopted until the thirteenth century, is sometimes interpreted with reference to the Last Supper, again as connected with the legend according to which St. John was handed a cup of poisoned wine, from which, at his blessing, the poison rose in the shape of a serpent. Perhaps the most natural explanation is to be found in the words of Christ to John and James "My chalice indeed you shall drink" (Matthew 20:23). - St. John in Christian art

St. John at the Crucifixion of Jesus in a Stabat Mater by Pietro Perugino, c. 1482

St. John at the Crucifixion of Jesus in a Stabat Mater by Pietro Perugino, c. 1482.

Russian Orthodox icon of the Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian, 18th century (Iconostasis from the Church of the Transfiguration, Kizhi Monastery

Russian Orthodox icon of the Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian, 18th century (Iconostasis from the Church of the Transfiguration, Kizhi Monastery).

St. John is often depicted beardless because he is believed to be the youngest of the apostles. It is simply a traditional way of expressing that. As for other representative ways of depicting St. John, I will let Wikipedia have a go at it:

John the Apostle c. 6 AD – c. 100 AD) or Saint John the Beloved was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus according to the New Testament. Generally listed as the youngest apostle, he was the son of Zebedee and Salome. His brother was James, who was another of the Twelve Apostles. The Church Fathers identify him as John the Evangelist, John of Patmos, John the Elder, and the Beloved Disciple, and testify that he outlived the remaining apostles and was the only one to die of natural causes, although modern scholars are divided on the veracity of these claims.

In Art

As he was traditionally identified with the beloved apostle, the evangelist, and the author of the Revelation and several Epistles, John played an extremely prominent role in art from the early Christian period onward. He is traditionally depicted in one of two distinct ways: either as an aged man with a white or gray beard, or alternatively as a beardless youth. The first way of depicting him was more common in Byzantine art, where it was possibly influenced by antique depictions of Socrates; the second was more common in the art of Medieval Western Europe, and can be dated back as far as 4th century Rome.

Legends from the Acts of John, an apocryphal text attributed to John, contributed much to Medieval iconography; it is the source of the idea that John became an apostle at a young age. One of John's familiar attributes is the chalice, often with a serpent emerging from it. This symbol is interpreted as a reference to a legend from the Acts of John, in which John was challenged to drink a cup of poison to demonstrate the power of his faith (the poison being symbolized by the serpent). Other common attributes include a book or scroll, in reference to the writings traditionally attributed to him, and an eagle, which is argued to symbolize the high-soaring, inspirational quality of these writings.

In Medieval and through to Renaissance works of painting, sculpture and literature, Saint John is often presented in an androgynous or feminized manner. Historians have related such portrayals to the circumstances of the believers for whom they were intended.[89] For instance, John's feminine features are argued to have helped to make him more relatable to women.bLikewise, Sarah McNamer argues that because of his status as an androgynous saint, John could function as an "image of a third or mixed gender" and "a crucial figure with whom to identify"bfor male believers who sought to cultivate an attitude of affective piety, a highly emotional style of devotion that, in late-medieval culture, was thought to be poorly compatible with masculinity.bAfter the Middle Ages, feminizing portrayals of Saint John continued to be made; a case in point is an etching by Jacques Bellange, shown to the right, described by art critic Richard Dorment as depicting "a softly androgynous creature with a corona of frizzy hair, small breasts like a teenage girl, and the round belly of a mature woman."

In the realm of popular media, this latter phenomenon was brought to notice in Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code (2003), where one of the book's characters suggests that the feminine-looking person to Jesus' right in Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper is actually Mary Magdalene rather than St. John.

The Last Supper (Leonardo)

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.

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First of all, nothing could be farther than reality in so far as the 'stage arrangement'is concerned, than the Da Vinci painting of Last Supper. Table and chair were introduced to prominent eastern countries like India after the arrival of the Portugese in 1498. Interestingly, the names of the said furniture in local languages of India owe their origin to the Portugese names ! That said, Jesus himself was most probably reclining to a cushion placed on a heavy carpet-like spread on the floor during the supper. And the disciples, in turn were reclining on one another, the nearest to Jesus being John. ( This fact stands explained in the answers to my question " Did Jesus have the Last Supper standing ? "). Now, as regards the facial features of those present, things are left to sheer speculation. For instance, the eyes of Jesus are larger than life-size! Judas is shown as an ugly-faced person to picturise his villain-role.John was deemed to be unmarried, and free of all worries of the world. Hence with a happy face. Whether his happy face converged into a face with girlish features, is again a matter of speculation. Now, Evangelist Luke was said to have been an artist who drew a picture of Mary with the Child. One does not, however, find Luke giving a visual narration of the facial features of Jesus and his disciples. And one does not come across traditional writings on the mundane subject. So, the answer to the question is NO.

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  • Agreed that art doesn't show reality. But I wasn't asking about the reliability of art, or even about John himself. The question is about why it was common for artists to have this specific depiction of what John might have looked like. Apr 14, 2022 at 13:26
  • In 1 Cor 11:14 , St Paul decries long hair on the head of men . He may not have done so if Jesus and his disciples grew their hair. The practice is a later edition. Artists are led less by reality and more by imagination. John was in all likelihood a relative of Jesus, judging from the way he entrusted to him the care of Mary. He could also have been much younger, yet to have wordly worries reflected on his face. Now, artists always had some models before them. It is possible that Da Vinci et al chose to have a pretty young lady to model for John. Apr 15, 2022 at 7:11
  • @KadalikattJosephSibichan 'Long' is relative. Shoulder length might not be long if women wore it to their waists. Apr 15, 2022 at 18:22
  • Thanks, OGF. Different cultures follow different norms, even on how long the hair of a woman can be. Knee-length is the standard of healthy hair in some cultures, some others have different standards. As for men, standards have changed from time to time. Shakespeare and Isaac Newton are shown with long hair in their portraits while Julius Caesar and Socrates are not. Apr 16, 2022 at 4:37

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