Saint John on Patmos, ca. 1511
Hans Baldung (called Hans Baldung Grien) (German, 1484/85–1545)
Oil on panel; 35 1/4 x 30 1/4 in. (89.5 x 76.8 cm)
Contributions from various donors supplemented by Museum purchase funds, 1983 (1983.451)
A painter, printmaker, and stained-glass designer of great originality, Baldung may have trained in Strasbourg, but in 1503 he became Albrecht Dürer's most talented assistant in the latter's Nuremberg workshop. Baldung's expressive style—with its robust, vigorous figures; unusual palette of acid greens, turquoise blues, and orange reds; and sharp-edged, graphic delineation of forms—sets him apart from his contemporaries. Here he stresses the visionary experience of Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation. The Virgin and Child miraculously appear to him, she as the Woman of the Apocalypse (Revelation 12:11). The young Saint John, seated on the right, gazes tenderly at a vision of the Virgin. Behind Saint John stretches a romantic landscape, and at the lower left an eagle, the symbol of the Evangelist, is perched on top of a closed book. This animal's imposing outline and beautifully drawn claws, the foreshortened book, and the powerful contrasts of black, turquoise, and gold make this one of the most arresting areas of the composition. The painting has the merit of being almost perfectly preserved, and the highlights that are so important a feature of Baldung's pictorial language are intact. The composition seems to have been highly regarded by both the artist and his patrons, since some years later it was adapted by a member of Baldung's workshop in the right wing of the Schnewlin altarpiece in the cathedral in Freiburg im Breisgau.
This painting and a much damaged panel of Saint Anne with the Christ Child, the Virgin, and Saint John the Baptist in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., appear originally to have been the wings of a larger panel of The Mass of Saint Gregory now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Baldung was paid in 1510/11 for an altarpiece commissioned by the Order of Sankt Johann in Jerusalem at Grünen Worth in Strasbourg, and it is likely that the triptych is the altarpiece to which this payment refers. The knight of the Order of Saint John who appears on the right of the Cleveland picture is probably Erhart Künig, the commander of the chapter who died in November 1511; the altarpiece may have been commissioned by him shortly before his death. In a 1741 inventory, three panels following the description of the Cleveland, Washington, and New York pictures are listed consecutively as hanging in the sacristy of the house of the order. The possessions of the order were seized in 1792 during the French Revolution, and the two wing panels were discovered hanging in a village church in Alsace shortly after 1870.