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Essay – Pieter de Grebber – St John the Evangelist

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Essay - Pieter de Grebber - St John the Evangelist

Saint John is shown in an ill-defined setting with his customary symbol, the eagle. A red cloak is draped over Saint John’s shoulders. His upward gaze suggests a heavenly inspiration pouring into his mind and with his pointing finger he underlines his state of concentrated attention. John the Evangelist is often considered Christ’s beloved disciple and was present at a few of the most important events in the Saviour’s life. For instance, when Christ was crucified he was the only disciple not to desert him and just before Christ died, the latter entrusted his mother Mary to John’s care. Just like that other John, The Baptist, The Evangelist counts among the most widely depicted Biblical figures. He is invariably represented in a red robe, distinguishing him from Saint John the Baptist. Being one of the four evangelists, his attribute is either a chalice or an eagle. It was in sixteenth-century Flanders that artists such as Quinten Metsys (1465/1466-1530) and Frans Floris (1519/1520-1570) began to produce series of the Four Evangelists and of Christ with his apostles as half-length figures, a tradition continued into the seventeenth century with examples by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) and Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678).2

Typical in these works is the high degree of individualization in the faces of the figures, implying that the artists had painted after live models.3

This individualization to a large degree accounts for the lively character of these images and, hence, their enduring success.

In the Protestant Netherlands of the seventeenth century the pop- ula rity of such series diminished somewhat but both protestant and

catholic Dutch artists continued to produce them, especially during the first half of the century.4

Examples of well-known protestant artists who painted them are Hendrick Terbrugghen, Frans Hals, Rembrandt and Jan Lievens. Still, the subject might conceivably have appealed more to catholic than to protestant patrons. Pieter de Grebber, as a catholic residing in catholic circles, indeed seems to have executed various sets of evangelists, which make up a sizable portion of his small painted oeuvre of about seventy works in which religious themes dominate.5 Pieter de Grebber was the oldest son and pupil of the Haarlem artist Frans de Grebber (1573-1649) and concluded his training with the celebrated Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617).6

By the time he registered in 1632 as an independent master with the Haarlem guild of Saint Luke, he had already built up a flourishing and international career for himself as a history painter.7

Obviously a precocious talent, Pieter almost im me- diately counted among Haarlem’s most respected artists and throughout

his short-lived career received prestigious commissions from the Haar - lem city and several of the town’s institutions as well as from the Dutch court, for instance for Honselaarsdijk Palace of stadholder Frederick Henry and later on for the Oranjezaal of Huis ten Bosch Palace. Pieter, who also dabbled as a poet and composer, died a prosperous man and a celebrated artist. During his formative years in the early 1620s painting in the Northern Netherlands underwent a massive transformation and Haarlem was very much at the forefront of these changes. For instance, Goltzius had brought about a dramatic transformation in his late paintings from the old-fashioned mannerist style to one later on characterized as classi ci - zing, laying the foundation for a new direction in Dutch figure painting. Another factor impacting Haarlem painting was the art of Peter Paul Rubens. Pieter probably met the great Flemish master when he accom - panied his father Frans, who acted as an agent for Rubens, on a business trip to Antwerp in 1618.8

In Rome Utrecht Caravaggist artists such as Terbrugghen, Dirck van Baburen and Gerard van Honthorst had studied the hyper-realistic and powerful works of Caravaggio and transmitted his revolutionary achievements to young and talented masters in Leiden such as Rembrandt and Lievens and to a host of Haarlem-based artists, among them Frans Hals and Judith Leyster, and not to mention Pieter de Grebber. The present painting is a fine demonstration of how De Grebber absorbed all of these new ideas and made them his own, forging a classicist style marked by an engaging realism and naturalness. The present Saint John can be dated to the 1630s, when it became fashionable for younger men to wear their hair long; a type of fashion detail that also tends to permeate Biblical and mythological scenes in painting. The horizontal layout of the composition is unusual and as far as known no other evangelist by de Grebber using this format is pre - served. If our painting was part of a set, it is to be hoped that the other three works belonging to it will resurface at some point in the future.9 [ES]