Wednesday, May 06, 2020

The Feast of St John at the Latin Gate

John was an Apostle, an Evangelist, and a Prophet: an Apostle, because he wrote to the churches as a teacher; an Evangelist, because he wrote a book of the Gospels, which the other twelve Apostles did not do, apart from Matthew; and a Prophet, for on the island of Patmos, whither he had been banished by Domitian because of his testimony to the Lord, he beheld the Apocalypse, which contains such infinite mysteries of the future. And Tertullian says (De praescript. 36, ca. 200 A.D.) that at Rome, he was put into a vessel of boiling oil, but he came out cleaner and healthier than he went in.” (St Jerome in his treatise against Jovinian, the fifth lesson of Matins of the feast. In the homily on the day’s Gospel, St Matthew 20, 20-23, St Jerome explains the Lord’s prophecy to the sons of Zebedee that they will drink the cup of His Passion.)

The Martyrdom of St John the Evangelist, by Charles le Brun, 1641-42, from the church of St Nicholas du Chardonnet in Paris.
“The question arises how the sons of Zebedee, namely, James and John, drank the cup of martyrdom, since Scripture tells that only that James the Apostle was beheaded by Herod, but John died a natural death. But if we read the history of the Church, in which it is told that he also for the sake of his witness (to Christ) was cast into a vessel of boiling oil, and thence went forth as a champion of Christ to receive his crown, and was at once exiled to the island of Patmos, we see that his spirit did not fail at the prospect of martyrdom, and that John did drink the cup of confession that the three children in the fiery furnace also drank, although the persecutor did not shed their blood.” (Commentary on Matthew, book 3, chap. 20)

The right wing of the St John Altarpiece, by Hans Memling, ca. 1479, showing the Apostle John and his vision of the Trinity.
From the lessons at Matins cited above, one would reasonably assume that the principle object of the feast is the Apostle’s martyrdom. However, in the Pre-Tridentine Roman Breviary, different lessons were read which make no mention of it, although it is spoken of in the Magnificat antiphon, which carried over into the Breviary of St Pius V: “In ferventis olei dolium missus beatus Joannes Apostolus, divina se protegente gratia, illaesus exivit, alleluia. - Cast into a pot of boiling oil, the blessed Apostle John, protected by divine grace, came out unharmed, alleluia.” From its first appearance in the late 8th-century, it is known as the feast of St John “before the Latin Gate”, even though the walls of which the Latin Gate are a part were built 200 years after St John’s time. The feast therefore most likely originates, like many secondary feasts, as the dedication feast of the small church built in St John’s honor near the Latin Gate, and was only later associated with the episode of the pot of oil.

The church of St John at the Latin Gate is the station church of the Saturday before Palm Sunday, here photographed by our Roman pilgrim friend Agnese on that occasion in 2014. (interior below)
Next door to the main church is the small oratory known as “Saint John in oleo”, said to be on the very spot where the pot of oil was set up; it is attributed to Donatello Bramante, the original architect in charge of rebuilding St Peter’s Basilica in the early 16th-century.
It is also unlikely a mere coincidence that the Byzantine Rite also keeps a secondary feast of St John only two days later. His principal feast is on September 26; since the Byzantine liturgical year begins on September 1st, he is the first in the year among the Twelve Apostles. On May 8th, a commemoration is made of a miracle whereby a manna-like substance came forth from his tomb in the city of Ephesus, which healed the faithful both physically and spiritually. This day was already occupied in the West, from very ancient times, by the feast of the Apparition of St Michael, and this might explain the slight discrepancy in the dates.

An icon of St John the Evangelist “in Silence.” This manner of representing St John indicates that it is only though profound silence and meditation that he was able to understand the mysteries revealed to him by God though the angel shown speaking directly into his ear, and in turn speak of the divinity of Christ, for which he is known as “the Theologian.” Painted by Nektarius Kulyuksin in 1679. (Public domain image form Wikipedia.)

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