Art was never meant to be just a beautiful image. Art is about emotions, about goosebumps. Religious, biblical art after the Counter-Reformation needed to make a strong, clear statement. Here the head of Saint John the Evangelist, the favourite apostle of Christ, painted by the Flemish Caravaggist artist Jacob van Oost the Elder in the third quarter of the 17th century in Bruges: ART in all its simplicity and complexity.
Jacob van Oost I was the leading painter in Bruges around the middle of the 17th century. He became the official town painter from 1651 until his death twenty years later.
Sir Anthony van Dyck and Sir Peter Paul Rubens have painted figures or heads of St John Evangelist in this pose, a discovery that must have strongly impressed van Oost, as one can see here.
About Jacob van Oost I
Bruges 1603 – 1671 Bruges
Caravaggist painter of biblical themes, portraits and genre scenes.
Van Oost was a prolific artist, producing mainly Counter-Reformation altarpieces for the numerous churches and monasteries in and around Bruges, but he equally excelled in the genre of portraiture.
Jacob is said to have been a pupil of his brother Frans, who died in 1625 at a very young age.
Shortly after joining the Painter’s Guild of Saint Luke in Bruges in 1621,
Jacob van Oost I travelled to Italy residing primarily in Rome, where he studied under Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) and was influenced by the art of Caravaggio. He probably also stayed in Genoa, Florence, Venice, Bologna, Milan and Naples. There are no paintings known from that period. He returned to Bruges in 1628.
Van Oost was the leading painter of the 17th century Bruges school of painting. He was the official painter of the city of Bruges from 1651 until his death twenty years later.
He was initially influenced by the Italians Anibale Caracci, (Michelangelo Merisi da) Caravaggio and Bartolomeo Manfredi. Later he responded to works of Flemish painters, such as Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Sir Anthony van Dyck, Gonzales Coques and Gerard Seghers.
Van Oost married twice. He had one child, a son, from his first marriage. After the early death of his wife in 1631, he married a second time in 1633. From the six children of this second wedding two became painters:
- Jacob van Oost the Younger (1639-1713), continued in his father's footsteps, albeit in a somewhat more diffuse style, in which suggestive use is made of flakily smeared brushstrokes. He produced most of his work in Lille, but he also worked in Paris and Rome. He regularly returned to Bruges.
- Willem van Oost (1651-1686) was a history painter.
About Saint John the Evangelist
According to Christian tradition John the Evangelist and John the Apostle are the same person.
John and his elder brother James were sons of a fisherman. Both became apostles of Jesus. As tradition wants that John joined Christ at a young age he is traditionally represented as a beardless youth. He was Christ’s favourite apostle. He was the only apostle who remained with his master Jesus at his crucifixion. He looked after the Virgin Mary and it is thought both went to live in Asia Minor in Ephesus. He was exiled by the Romans to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation. He lived into old age. He was the last apostle who died (at the very end of the 1st century AD) and he was the only apostle who died a natural death, who was not killed by the Romans for his faith.
The New Testament holds four Gospels, each written by one of the four Evangelists. Saint Jerome, the authour of the definitive and officially promulgated Latin version of the Bible of the Roman Catholic Church, linked four living beings with these four Evangelists:
- a man or a winged angel stands for Matthew
- the lion for Mark
- the ox for Luke
- the eagle for John.
The eagle refers to John’s description of the resurrection of Christ. It was a common believe that the eagle is the only bird that can look straight into the sun, as Jesus was the only man who could see God. And as John had described God’s light the eagle was chosen as his symbol.
Mannerism had been a rather tormented answer on the departure of two of the big three of Late Renaissance painting, Leonardo and Raphael, but above all on the genius, muscular art of Michelangelo.
After Mannerism came Early Baroque. Its painters had to chose between two very different options: the classicising tranquillity and unrest of Annibale Carraci (1560 – 1609) and the genius, but bold naturalism lit by dramatic chiaroscuro and tenebrism of Caravaggio (1571 – 1610).
The person, the art, the revolution of Caravaggio were not simple to handle, let alone to accept. His compositions and lighting had never been seen before, the way he reduced the most important bible subjects to their simplest, elementary senses neither. In his hands religious art had embraced the ideas of the Counter-Reformation and had thus become human again: at times crude, but never stereotype. Protestantism had been tough on the Catholics, but this restless genius must have been as hard to support, be it in Rome, Naples or at Valetta on the island of Malta.
This artist was not from this planet:
- apparently he made no preparatory drawings;
- he had no assistants nor pupils.
But still half of the most important artists of the 17th century would not have evolved the way they did without having seen his paintings, or without having been influenced by his early followers, such as Bartolommeo Manfredi.
Hordes of artists travelled to Rome: many Dutch, Flemish and French artists came to the Eternal City to witness his art, Spanish artists saw it in Naples. Caravaggism became a widespread phenomen in European Early Baroque painting.
About our painting
Both Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens have painted impressive figures and heads of St John Evangelist in this pose: looking upwards, at his symbol, the eagle. Who was the first in the second decade of the 16th century? Young van Dyck, already a genius at a very young age or his master, Rubens?
Van Oost must have been strongly influenced by their originality of depicting St John, for he copied here their composition.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it testifies of the influence of Carravagism in Flanders and of van Dyck and Rubens in Bruges.