John the Evangelist is commonly considered to be Jesus’ “Beloved Disciple” — and possibly his lover. His feast day is Dec. 27.
The love between Jesus and John has been celebrated by artists since medieval times. And the idea that they were same-sex lovers has been inspiring queer people and causing controversy at least since the 16th century.
John was an apostle of Jesus and is the presumed author of the Gospel of John, the Book of Revelation and the Epistles of John. The Bible describes their warm relationship on multiple occasions. John left his life as a fisherman to follow Jesus, who nicknamed him “Son of Thunder.” John participated in many of the main events in Christ’s ministry. He was one of the three who witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the transfiguration and Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane.
The unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved” is referenced five times in the gospel of John (John 13:23, 19:26, 20:22, 21:7, 20). Church tradition identifies him as John himself. Other identities proposed for the Beloved Disciple include Lazarus, Thomas, Mary Magdalene and even Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Because the Beloved Disciple is left unnamed, each believer is free to imagine or be that beloved disciple in their own way.
Whoever he or she was, the Beloved Disciple reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper, resting his head on Jesus’ chest. No other male disciples were present at the crucifixion. From the cross, Jesus entrusted the Beloved Disciple and his mother Mary into each other’s care.
There is even a medieval European tradition that John and Jesus were the bridal couple at the Cana wedding feast. Jesus performed his first miracle at Cana by turning water into wine. The Bible tells the story in John 2:1-11 without ever naming who was getting married.
The idea that Jesus and his Beloved Disciple had a sexual relationship dates back at least to the early 16th century, when English playwright Christopher Marlowe was tried for blasphemy on the charge of claiming that “St. John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma.” In 1550 Francesco Calcagno, a citizen of Venice, was investigated by the Inquisition for making the heretical claim that “St. John was Christ’s catamite,” which means a boy or young man in a pederastic sexual relationship with an older man.
Many modern scholars have expressed belief that Jesus and his Beloved Disciple shared a an erotic physical relationship. They include Hugh Montefiore, Robert Williams, Sjef van Tilborg, John McNeill, Rollan McCleary, Robert E. Goss and James Neill. A thorough analysis is included in “The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament” by Theodore Jennings, Biblical theology professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. He finds the evidence “inconclusive” as to whether the beloved disciple was John, but it leaves no doubt that Jesus had a male lover.
“A close reading of the texts in which the beloved disciple appears supports the hypothesis that the relationship between him and Jesus may be understood as that of lovers. As it happens, both Jesus and the beloved are male, meaning that their relationship may be said to be, in modern terms, a ‘homosexual’ relationship,” Jennings writes (p. 34).
After Jesus was crucified, John went on to build a close, loving relationship with his younger disciple and scribe, Prochorus, bishop of Nicomedia. Tradition says that John was the only one of Christ’s original 12 apostles to live to old age, and the only one not killed for his faith. He died in Ephesus around 100 AD.
One of the earliest images of John and Jesus together is a little-known 12th-century miniature, “The Calling of St. John.” It depicts two scenes: Christ coaxing the disciple John to leave his female bride and follow him, and John resting his head on Jesus’ chest. Jesus cups the chin of his beloved, an artistic convention used to indicate romantic intimacy. The Latin text means, “Get up, leave the breast of your bride, and rest on the breast of the Lord Jesus.”
An entire chapter is dedicated to John as the bride of Christ in the 2013 book “Saintly Brides and Bridegrooms: The Mystic Marriage in Renaissance Art” by Carolyn D. Muir, art professor at the University of Hong Kong.
Jesus embraces the Beloved Disciple in medieval art
Now-iconic images of the loving embrace between John and Christ apparently originated during the early 1300s in German convents in the Rhineland and Swabia. These were devotional images intended to help viewers deepen their connection to Christ. Prolific artists created many versions. Today one of them is housed in the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio.
The subject is known as “Christus Johannes Gruppe” (Christ John Group) or Johannesminne (love of John), with minne being a Middle High German word for erotic-emotional love. Many of these images were actually created for women, not men, to contemplate. Most if not all of the Johannesminne statues were altarpieces for Dominican convents and nunneries.
The history, eroticism, appeal and impact of these devotional images is explored in “The Late Medieval Andachtsbild,” an unpublished essay by Daniel G. Conklin, a retired Anglican priest in Berlin. He writes,
“One common characteristic of the Johannesminne is that the figure of John seems a bit gender-ambiguous, i.e. it looks like he might be a “she.” Considering the place where these images arose and were beheld, it takes no great stretch of the imagination to envision the effect of the Johannesminne on a cloistered young woman who was well versed in the Cistercian “bridal” mysticism of St. Bernard of Clairvaux…. The Johannesminne is an image of profound tenderness embued with a kind of gentle eroticism. As an altarpiece it must have been a constant reminder of the connection between the Lord’s Last Supper and the celebration of the Mass and it surely reinforced the pious conviction that in the Eucharistic bread and wine the risen Christ “dwells in us and we in him” in a profound and intimate way.”
Conklin goes on to identify homoeroticism as one source of the image’s enduring power:
“The popularity of the Johannesminne – then and now – may also stem from the fact that this is an image involving love and tenderness between two adult males. The fact that this Andachtsbild arose in monasteries, communities of same-sex individuals, probably comes as no surprise. Its power to awaken faith and delight in close communion with Christ is perhaps not its only appeal. The Johannesminne has become perhaps even more appealing in our day in which people of the same gender in committed relationships seek some form(s) of faith confirmation of who they are and whose they are. The Johannesminne may very well serve as a mirror as well as a model for many, not only same-sex oriented persons.”
In Germany the Johannesminne image remains so important that it has even been made into a postage stamp. Its influence may also live on in today’s popular “Sacred Heart of Jesus” icons, which show the physical heart of Jesus in his chest. Conklin explains:
The Johannesminne as an altarpiece not only visualized the intimate communion of the Eucharist, but also seems to have been one of the essential sources for the unfolding of the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” mysticism which developed later, but had its beginnings in this Andachtsbild. The beholder could imagine John, i.e. the beholder him/herself, hearing the heartbeat of Jesus while leaning on his chest. The communion is that “close.”
Another early sculpture in this style is “St. John Resting on Jesus’ Chest,” circa 1320, which is housed at the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp. It can be seen online at the Web Gallery of Art. The sculpture was created by Master Heinrich of Constance for the the Dominican convent of St. Catherine’s valley in Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons displays a set of 10 statues of Johannesminne in Germany at this link.
John the Beloved Disciple in contemporary art
Over the centuries many artworks have illustrated the deep love between Jesus and his Beloved Disciple. One of the newest is “Beloved Disciple” by James Day, a student working towards a Masters of Arts in Theological Studies at Episcopal Divinity School in Boston. His focus is queer theology and liturgical arts. Day’s painting of the “Beloved Disciple” hung in the EDS Chapel in fall 2016.
The wedding between Jesus and his beloved disciple is one of the LGBT Christian themes explored in monumental nude paintings by gay New Zealand artist Christopher Olwage. He gives a sacred gay interpretation to the wedding feast at Cana. Olwage is an LGBTQ activist and gender-bending ballet dancer who reigned as Mr. Gay World in 2013.
by Christopher Olwage
Another recent work is the 2012 icon “Jesus and the Beloved Disciple” by Laurie Gudim. Based in Colorado, Gudim is an artist, Jungian psychotherapist and progressive Episcopalian. Her work uses a motif dating back at least to the 13th century.The long artistic tradition depicts John as the Beloved Disciple resting his head on the breast of Jesus. It can be seen in an early 13th-century stained-glass window at the Cathedral of St. Etienne at Bourges and in “Christus Johannes Gruppe” (Christ John Group) by the unknown Master of Oberschwaben. This sculpture spent many centuries in an Augustinian convent in Inzigkofen, a town in the region of Sigmaringen in southwestern Germany. A museum in Berlin acquired in it the early 20th century, and it is now housed in the Bode Museum of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.
by Becki Jayne Harrelson
Beloved Disciple in music and poetry
Contemporary America singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens merges homoerotic desire and spiritual longing in the song “John My Beloved.” Many listeners hear references in the song to the love between Jesus and his disciple John as well as to modern gay sexual encounters. The song is available on a YouTube video and the album from his album “Carrie and Lowell.”
Beloved Disciple excerpt from Jesus in Love: A Novel
I became distracted by the not unwelcome presence of somebody standing close behind me, closer than necessary in the loosely packed crowd. I sensed that it was John, and spun around to see him planted there like a tall cedar tree. He leaned against me, eyes flashing. “I can’t wait for the Messiah to come. I’ve seen him in visions.”
“Really? Tell me what you remember.” It was exciting to find someone who was aware of God’s efforts to communicate.
“The Messiah is like a gentle lamb who sits on a throne with a rainbow around it. And yet his eyes flame with fire, and a sharp sword comes out of his mouth to strike down evildoers.”
“The truth is large,” I said.
“Are you saying my vision isn’t true?” he challenged.
“No, I’m not saying that. I expect that you will see more.”
When John smiled, his faced crinkled into a fascinating landscape of wrinkles. His eyes felt black and mysterious like the midnight sky as they roamed over me. “Do you want a prayer partner tonight?” he asked.
If anyone else had asked, I would have said no, but I looked again at John’s handsome, bejeweled soul and his long, sinewy body.
“Sure,” I agreed impulsively.
Only then did I notice that the Baptist had finished preaching. John steered me toward the caves where the Baptist and his inner circle of disciples lived. Lower-ranking disciples were ready with water vessels and towels to assist everyone with ritual purification before we ate a spartan meal of locusts and wild honey. One of them approached me.
“Wash up, and we’ll get together after supper,” John said as we parted.
Links related to the Beloved Disciple
Top image credit: Detail from Study for The Last Supper by Becki Jayne Harrelson
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
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