Saint John gazes heavenward with his inner, spiritual eyes, his whole psyche absorbed by a momentary visionary experience of divine love and inspiration. He stands unaware of his bodily condition, brow furrowed in intensity, an artery pulsing on his neck and mouth agape. His right hand, which once held a quill pen, is suspended in space to capture something of his powerful mystical experience. His tunic, scapular, and hooded cloak respond in every fold to the body's gentle sway and the dynamic energy of his uplifted arms.
Saint John of the Cross was one of the great Spanish mystics of the 16th century. Born in 1542, he was inclined to ascetic practices and great personal austerity. After pushing for reform of his Carmelite order, he was imprisoned in Toledo. The harsh confinement awakened his poetic gifts, however, and he began to compose some of the most esteemed spiritual verses and commentaries ever written in Spanish, including "The Ascent of Mount Carmel" and "The Dark Night of the Soul." John died in 1591 after a severe and painful illness.
Only months after his beatification on January 25, 1675, the Carmelite convent of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios near Seville commissioned a life-sized statue from the young Sevillian sculptor, Franciso Antonio Gijón, then only 21. Gijón had studied with two older masters of the highly naturalistic wooden sculpture tradition popular in southern Spain, one of them a practitioner of the dynamic Roman Baroque manner initiated by Bernini. Believed to be the work Gijón created for Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, the National Gallery's Saint John of the Cross masterfully demonstrates Gijón's highly realistic approach and his focus on powerful psychological states, as particularly revealed through the expressive face and hands.
Gijón's contract, dated March 11, still survives. It tells us that the work was to be made of cypress supplied by the monks and that it was to be finished by the end of April, giving the artist only a month and a half to complete it. The document also stipulates that the figure hold a quill pen in his right hand and, in the left, a book with a model of a mountain surmounted by a cross, which refers to his mystic commentary, "The Ascent of Mount Carmel." Another Sevillian artist, Domingo Mejías, probably collaborated with Gijón, a procedure quite normal in Spain at the time. He would have been responsible for the lifelike paint and gilding. The complicated brocade pattern of John's tunic was made by scratching through paint to reveal the gold below it. Called estofado, this technique was common in baroque Spanish sculpture. Saint John of the Cross himself certainly never wore such a luxurious costume, but this radiant version of the Carmelite habit undoubtedly indicated his heavenly status as "Blessed."
Carmelite convent of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, Seville, from 1675 until 1810 or 1835. private collection, Italy, from c. 1960; purchased 17 October 2003 through (Patricia Wengraf Ltd., London) by NGA.
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- Dávila-Armero del Arenal, Alvaro, José Carlos Pérez Morales, and Carlos Maria López-Fe y Figueroa. Francisco Antonio Ruiz Gijón. Vol. 5, Grandes Maestros Andaluces, ed. Enrique F. Pareja López. Seville, 2010: 160-165, 179, 183, repro.