The popular medieval prayer book called a Book of Hours typically opened with excerpts from the four Gospels. As opposed to being in canonical order — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — they were in chronological order, beginning with John’s Gospel. The “chronology” follows the life of Christ from the Incarnation. The phrase “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1) recalls the moment of the Annunciation, when Mary hears Gabriel’s words, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” (Luke 1:28). Gabriel’s utterance signaled the divine conception of Jesus.
The Gospel readings were often illustrated with scenes of the evangelists writing their Gospels, and this miniature painting depicts St. John on the Greek island of Patmos. Tradition holds that John was exiled to Patmos around 95 AD and that he wrote the Biblical book of Revelation there. Whoever devised this portrait was pretending that John wrote his Gospel on Patmos too.
John is easily recognizable by his long blond hair, the eagle (his symbol) and the scalloped shoreline of Patmos. You can make out the letters “in principio” (“In the beginning”) on the scroll on his lap. (The artist also took some liberties with the language, as John wrote in Greek.) The evangelist is illuminated — and inspired — by a divine radiance emanating from the heavens. The landscape is curious. Lush flowering shrubs bloom from a rocky outcrop and similarly verdant ones can be seen in the distance. Like John’s Gospel, these have spread across the world. The little towers in the background represent cities where the faith, like the vegetation, will take root.
This charming artwork was executed around 1490 by a northern French artist named Robert Boyvin. At this date, Boyvin was working exclusively for Cardinal Georges d’Amboise, the prime minister of France, so we can be confident that this manuscript represents an elite commission for a patron known to the cardinal.