Lorenzo COSTA | Saint John the Evangelist [San Giovanni Evangelista]

Lorenzo COSTA
Ferrara 1440 /1480 – Mantua 1535

Saint John the Evangelist [San Giovanni Evangelista] c.1480-85
oil on canvas transferred from wood panel
81.3 (h) x 54.8 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Bequest of Giovanni Morelli 1891

Giovanni Morelli bought this painting in 1886 from a dealer in Florence, in whose shop it languished among anonymous works. Morelli attributed the painting to Lorenzo Costa using his famous method, in which he analysed characteristic details of the hand, the eyes and the squiggly sculptural drapery. He was passionate about Costa, whom he regarded as the founder of the Ferrarese school; and, comparing him to other artists, judged him: more fiery and excitable by nature, he was also more richly endowed with those gifts which characterise a great artist.[1]

Costa’s Saint John the Evangelist is executed in a monumental solemn manner that recalls the grand simplified forms and pure colours of Piero della Francesca,[2] with the figure of the saint outlined against an architectural background of contrasting colours and forms. The Evangelist has a sweet humane expression and stands languidly with attributes in his hands. The great Italian writer Roberto Longhi invented the term ‘proto-classicism’ to define this classic Central Italian style, between Bologna and Ferrara. Costa’s painting dates from the period when he transferred from Ferrara to Bologna, where he made the most of his career. His famous works from this time are the frescoes he executed for the Bentivoglio family chapel in San Giacomo Maggiore, Bologna.

The painting in Bergamo is a fragment from an altarpiece with many figures,[3] where Saint John once contemplated the Virgin and other saints. Although he died of old age (about the year 100), Saint John is shown holding the palm of martyrdom. According to legend he outlived two attempts on his life. At the Porta Latina, Rome, he is said to have survived being thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil. The chalice in his right hand alludes to the cup of poisoned wine offered to him which failed to have any effect—at Saint John’s blessing the poison is said to have risen up from the cup as if it were a serpent. The chalice is also a reference to the Last Supper.

Morelli’s attribution to Costa is confirmed by a comparison with the artist’s representation of Saint John the Evangelist on Patmos in the large stained glass rose window in the church of San Giovanni in Monte at Bologna.[4] This Saint John is depicted with a similar physiognomy and similar clothes, and the style is Costa’s. His most celebrated late work was made for Isabella d’Este’s camerino in Mantua, her private studio where Costa’s The reign of Comus was completed in 1511;[5] he inherited the commission from Andrea Mantegna and made it his own.

Jaynie Anderson

[1] Giovanni Morelli, Italian painters, London: John Murray 1882, p. 222.

[2] Piero della Francesca (c.1415–1492).

[3] Federico Zeri and Francesco Rossi, La raccolta Morelli nell’Accademia Carrara, Bergamo: Amilcare Pizzi, 1986, pp. 211–21.

[4] Zeri and Rossi, illus. p. 210.

[5] Louvre, Paris.