Bologna 1575 – 1642
Saint John the Evangelist
oil on copper
26 ⅜ x 20 ⅞ inches
67 x 53 cm
By the time of his death, Guido Reni (1575–1642) was probably the most famous artist in Europe. After working with the Carraccis in Bologna and a brief Caravaggesque phase, he developed an idealized style which was seen as a beacon of later counter-reformation spirituality.
Amongst Guido Reni’s most enduringly popular images are his depictions of beautifully rendered bust-length, or near bust-length, holy figures: various saints and apostles, the Magdalene, the Virgin and Christ himself. It was a genre that the artist essentially pioneered, paintings of heads that took as their subject not the physical, but the psychological. All of Reni’s biographers noted his skill at rendering heads in this manner, his ability to capture the much-admired depiction of affetti, or physical description of sentiment in painting, whether in large compositions, or on a smaller scale.
Our Saint John the Evangelist is an example of this type of painting. Painted effortlessly with creamy brushstrokes, the wet-on-wet technique especially evident in the fall of the young saint’s curls over his neck (fig. 1), Reni depicts the saint wearing his traditional robes of green and red. We see him concentrating intently on his work as author of the Gospel, indicated here by his quill and the trace of a manuscript resting on the trompe l’oeil marble oval.
While this image is an iconic example of Reni’s mature style, its relationship to Raphael is inescapable. The influence of Raphael on Reni is widely discussed by all commentators on Reni, from his contemporary Malvasia to modern commentators. Pepper notes that Raphael’s Transfiguration could have provided a starting point for two major altarpieces commissioned from Reni by the city of Bologna, the Pieta dei Mendicanti (1613-16) and the Pala della Peste (1631). Equally, individual figures, such as that of St. Philip (fig. 2) in Raphael’s altarpiece, provide a template of male perfection adapted by Reni in this St John the Evangelist.
The present painting has been identified by Elizabeth Cropper and Lorenzo Pericolo with one of a group of three coppers in the Zambeccari collection recorded by Malvasia in his Life of Guido Reni “Di questi particolarmente si valse (per essere prima dimestico di sua casa) il conte Luigi Zambeccari a far oprare ben presto…all’ istesso signor Guido quattro mezze figure che possedeva, cioè la Maddalena, la Santa Cecilia, il San Giovanni Evangelista su gran rami ed il Beato Luigi Gonzaga in tela.” (Of these [Belcollare, an intermediary, was] especially valued (having previously been employed at his house) for having had completed rapidly for count Luigi Zambeccari…from the same Guido four half-figures which he owned, that is the Magdalene, the Saint Cecelia, the Saint John on large copper plates and the Blessed Luigi Gonzaga in canvas). Additionally, Count Zambeccari’s posthumous inventory records this painting as ‘No. 10‘ as ‘Un S. Giovanni Evangelista del mano detto (Reni) in rame‘ which matches the hand-painted number on the reverse of this copper. The Magdalene from this series, identical in size and format, was exhibited in Paris in 1998.
In around 1617, Reni painted another St. John which is now in the Galleria Corsini (fig. 3), Rome. That St. John is simpler, shown without hands, looking upward. A later St. John dateable 1632-3 (fig. 4) is one of four half-length portrayals of the Evangelists and is now in the Bob Jones University Collection, Greenville, SC. Cropper and Pericolo, based on stylistic considerations and the Zambeccari inventory, dates this painting to ca. 1623-26.
A note on provenance
Count Luigi Zambeccari also commissioned, as a chimney-front for his house on Via Riva di Reno in Bologna, the famous Samson by Guido Reni (fig. 5). The Zambeccari family were important members of Bolognese Senate and assembled, during the 17th century, a collection of over 300 paintings. Marquess Giacomo Zambeccari bequeathed the collection to public in 1788 and it is now exhibited in a room in the Pinacoteca entitled ‘quadreria’ Zambeccari. Today a retail, fashion, and cultural center is housed in the portico of family’s historic palazzo. ❖
Luigi Zambeccari, Bologna, before 1630
Thence by descent
(Possibly) Archbishop Boncopagni, by descent, December 1678
Private collection, Klagenfurt, Austria, by 1900
Eduard Safarik, Germany
Private collection, London
London, Matthiesen Gallery, Guido Reni, The ‘Divine’ Guido: A Trio, 2017
Carlo Cesare Malvasia, La Felsina Pittrice, 1678, ed. cit. 1841-4, vol. II, p. 33.
Serie degli i più illustri nella pittura scultura e architettura, Florence, 1769-1776, vol. VIII, pp. 153-154.
Stella Rudolph, ‘Il Bacco e l’Arianna di Guido Reni a Villa Albani’, Arte Illustrata, March 1974, vol. VII no. 57, p. 40.
Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Catherine Enggass and Robert Enggass (transl.), The Life of Guido Reni, University Park and London, 1980, p. 89.
Gian Piero Cammarota, ‘Una raccolta di fonti: La Collezione Zambeccari’, Origini della Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, Bologna, 2001, vol. III, pp. 61, 119.
Christina Lamb Chakalova, The Studio of Guido Reni, Vienna, 2012, p. 44.
Patrick Matthiesen, Guido Reni. The ‘Divine’ Guido: A Trio, London, 2017, exh. cat., pp. 65-70, reproduced.
Elizabeth Cropper and Lorenzo Pericolo (eds.), Malvasia’s Felsina Pittrice, Vol. IX: Life of Guido Reni, London, 2019.