John the Evangelist: Beloved Disciple of Jesus — and maybe his lover

by Kittredge Cherry | Dec 27, 2020 (qspirit.net)

Jesus and Beloved Disciple in detail from study for The Last Supper by Becki Jayne Harrelson

John the Evangelist is commonly considered to be Jesus’ “Beloved Disciple” — and possibly his lover. His feast day is Dec. 27.

The love between Jesus and John has been celebrated by artists since medieval times. And the idea that they were same-sex lovers has been inspiring queer people and causing controversy for centuries.

John was an apostle of Jesus and is the presumed author of the Gospel of John, the Book of Revelation and the Epistles of John. The Bible describes their warm relationship on multiple occasions. John and his brother James left their lives as a fishermen in Galilee to follow Jesus.  He nicknamed them “Sons of Thunder,” perhaps referring to their fiery temperaments or powerful voices. John participated in many of the main events in Christ’s ministry. He was one of the three who witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the transfiguration and Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane.

The unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved” is referenced five times in the gospel of John (John 13:23, 19:26, 20:22, 21:7, 20). Church tradition identifies him as John himself. Other identities proposed for the Beloved Disciple include Lazarus, Thomas, Mary Magdalene and even Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus.  Because the Beloved Disciple is left unnamed, each believer is free to imagine or be that beloved disciple in their own way.

No other male disciples were present at the crucifixion. From the cross, Jesus entrusted the Beloved Disciple and his mother Mary into each other’s care. Legends say that John took her with him to the Turkish city of Ephesus, where the major temple to the goddess Artemis was rededicated to Mary.

The gospel of John, the most mystical gospel, is attributed to John. This gospel is also noted for its gender inclusivity in portraying the important role of women such as Mary and Martha of Bethany, the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene. In John’s gospel, the Beloved Disciple was the first to reach the empty tomb of Jesus, the first to believe in his resurrection and the first to recognize the risen Christ at the miraculous catch of fish.

After Jesus was crucified, John went on to build a close, loving relationship with his younger disciple and scribe, Prochorus, bishop of Nicomedia. Tradition says that John was the only one of Christ’s original 12 apostles to live to old age, and the only one not killed for his faith. He died in Ephesus around 100 AD.

Did Jesus and John share an erotic relationship?

Whoever he or she was, the Beloved Disciple reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper, resting his head on Jesus’ chest. There is even a medieval European tradition that John and Jesus were the bridal couple at the Cana wedding feast. Jesus performed his first miracle at Cana by turning water into wine. The Bible tells the story in John 2:1-11 without ever naming who was getting married.  But the apocryphal Acts of John state that John broke off his engagement to a woman to “bind himself” to Jesus. The idea that Jesus wed John at Cana is discussed by Gerard Loughlin in the introduction to “Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body.”

One of the earliest images of John and Jesus together is a little-known 12th-century miniature, “The Calling of St. John.” It depicts two scenes: Christ coaxing the disciple John to leave his female bride and follow him, and John resting his head on Jesus’ chest. Jesus cups the chin of his beloved, an artistic convention used to indicate romantic intimacy. The Latin text means, “Get up, leave the breast of your bride, and rest on the breast of the Lord Jesus.”The Calling of Saint John

“The Calling of Saint. John,” a 12th-century miniature

An entire chapter is dedicated to John as the bride of Christ in the 2013 book “Saintly Brides and Bridegrooms: The Mystic Marriage in Renaissance Art” by Carolyn D. Muir, art professor at the University of Hong Kong.

“John the Apostle resting on the bosom of Christ,” Swabia/Lake Constance, early 14th century. Photo by Andreas Praefcke. (Wikimedia Commons)

The idea that Jesus and his Beloved Disciple had a sexual relationship was publicly discussed in early 16th century, when English playwright Christopher Marlowe was tried for blasphemy on the charge of claiming that “St. John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma.” In 1550 Francesco Calcagno, a citizen of Venice, was investigated by the Inquisition for making the heretical claim that “St. John was Christ’s catamite,” which means a boy or young man in a pederastic sexual relationship with an older man.

Many modern scholars have expressed belief that Jesus and his Beloved Disciple shared a an erotic physical relationship. They include Hugh Montefiore, Robert Williams, Sjef van Tilborg, John McNeill, Rollan McCleary, Robert E. Goss and James Neill. A thorough analysis is included in “The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament” by the late Theodore Jennings, who served as Biblical theology professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. He finds the evidence “inconclusive” as to whether the beloved disciple was John, but it leaves no doubt that Jesus had a male lover.

“A close reading of the texts in which the beloved disciple appears supports the hypothesis that the relationship between him and Jesus may be understood as that of lovers. As it happens, both Jesus and the beloved are male, meaning that their relationship may be said to be, in modern terms, a ‘homosexual’ relationship,” Jennings writes (p. 34).

The homoeroticism of the relationship is also explored in the chapter on the Beloved Disciple in
The Double: Male Eros, Friendships, and Mentoring–from Gilgamesh to Kerouac” by Edward Sellner.Jesus and John from Sellner collection

This statue of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple comes from the collection of author Edward Sellner. He commissioned it from a wood carver in Brittany, France.

While the earliest depictions emphasize the closeness between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, modern translations keep putting more distance between them. Gay Christian author Chris Glaser writes on his blog,

In ‘As My Own Soul: The Blessing of Same-Gender Marriage,’ I pointed out how recent translations have distanced the Beloved Disciple, believed to be John, from Jesus. In the King James Version “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is “leaning on Jesus’ bosom.” The Revised Standard Version describes him as “lying close to the breast of Jesus.” But the New Revised Standard Version and the New Jerusalem Bible have the Beloved Disciple simply “reclining next” to Jesus. As the Beloved disciple moves farther away from Jesus with newer versions, I imagine in the next translation he will be in another room!

The queer history of their relationship is presented in the video “Before Stonewall, Episode 5: The Myth of the Beloved Disciple” by historian Chad Denton.

Jesus embraces the Beloved Disciple in historical art

A newly discovered painting of Jesus and his Beloved Disciple was recently unveiled to the public for the first time in 450 years.  They appear in the Last Supper by Italian nun Plautilla Nelli.John and Jesus by Plautilla Nelli

John and Jesus in Last Supper by Plautilla Nelli, 1658 (Wikipedia)

It is the world’s first known depiction of the Last Supper by a woman. Nelli was a Dominican nun and the first woman painter of Renaissance Florence. Her life-size Last Supper is about 23 feet long, almost as big as Da Vinci’s famous version. The Dominican nun was a self-taught artist with many patrons, including women.

Now-iconic images of the loving embrace between John and Christ apparently originated during the early 1300s in German convents in the Rhineland and Swabia. These were devotional images intended to help viewers deepen their connection to Christ. Prolific artists created many versions. Today one of them is housed in the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio.John and Jesus 1320

“Christus Johannes Gruppe” (Christ John Group) by the unknown Master of Oberschwaben, oak sculpture, 1320.

The subject is known as “Christus Johannes Gruppe” (Christ John Group) or Johannesminne (love of John), with minne being a Middle High German word for erotic-emotional love. Many of these images were actually created for women, not men, to contemplate. Most if not all of the Johannesminne statues were altarpieces for Dominican convents and nunneries.

For example, “Christus Johannes Gruppe” (Christ John Group) by the unknown Master of Oberschwaben spent many centuries in an Augustinian convent in Inzigkofen, a town in the region of Sigmaringen in southwestern Germany. A museum in Berlin acquired in it the early 20th century, and it is now housed in the Bode Museum of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.John and Jesus Bourges cathedral stained glass

Jesus embraces the Beloved Disciple at the Last Supper in a 13th-century stained-glass window from Cathedral of Saint Etienne in Bourges, France. (Wikipedia)

The history, eroticism, appeal and impact of these devotional images is explored in “The Late Medieval Andachtsbild,” an unpublished essay by Daniel G. Conklin, a retired Anglican priest in Berlin. He writes,

“One common characteristic of the Johannesminne is that the figure of John seems a bit gender-ambiguous, i.e. it looks like he might be a “she.” Considering the place where these images arose and were beheld, it takes no great stretch of the imagination to envision the effect of the Johannesminne on a cloistered young woman who was well versed in the Cistercian “bridal” mysticism of St. Bernard of Clairvaux…. The Johannesminne is an image of profound tenderness embued with a kind of gentle eroticism. As an altarpiece it must have been a constant reminder of the connection between the Lord’s Last Supper and the celebration of the Mass and it surely reinforced the pious conviction that in the Eucharistic bread and wine the risen Christ “dwells in us and we in him” in a profound and intimate way.”

Conklin goes on to identify homoeroticism as one source of the image’s enduring power:

“The popularity of the Johannesminne – then and now – may also stem from the fact that this is an image involving love and tenderness between two adult males. The fact that this Andachtsbild arose in monasteries, communities of same-sex individuals, probably comes as no surprise. Its power to awaken faith and delight in close communion with Christ is perhaps not its only appeal. The Johannesminne has become perhaps even more appealing in our day in which people of the same gender in committed relationships seek some form(s) of faith confirmation of who they are and whose they are. The Johannesminne may very well serve as a mirror as well as a model for many, not only same-sex oriented persons.”

1967 German Stamp with “Christ-John Group” (Wikimedia Commons)

In Germany the Johannesminne image remains so important that it has even been made into a postage stamp. Its influence may also live on in today’s popular “Sacred Heart of Jesus” icons, which show the physical heart of Jesus in his chest. Conklin explains:

The Johannesminne as an altarpiece not only visualized the intimate communion of the Eucharist, but also seems to have been one of the essential sources for the unfolding of the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” mysticism which developed later, but had its beginnings in this Andachtsbild. The beholder could imagine John, i.e. the beholder him/herself, hearing the heartbeat of Jesus while leaning on his chest. The communion is that “close.”

Another early sculpture in this style is “St. John Resting on Jesus’ Chest,” circa 1320, which is housed at the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp. It can be seen online at the Web Gallery of Art. The sculpture was created by Master Heinrich of Constance for the the Dominican convent of St. Catherine’s valley in Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons displays a set of 10 statues of Johannesminne in Germany at this link.

“Johannesminne of Heiligkreuztal” by Tobias HallerIn contemporary times “Johannesminne” was sketched by Tobias Haller, an iconographer, author, composer, and retired vicar of Saint James Episcopal Church in the Bronx, still assisting at a parish in Baltimore, Maryland. His sketch is based on the Johannesminne sculpture in the convent at Heiligkreuztal in Altheim, Germany. Haller is the author of “Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality.” Haller enjoys expanding the diversity of icons available by creating icons of LGBTQ people and other progressive holy figures as well as traditional saints. He and his spouse were united in a church wedding more than 30 years ago and a civil ceremony after same-sex marriage became legal in New York.John’s intimacy with Jesus at the Last Supper continued to fascinate artists as the centuries passed. Examples from the 1500s include an Albrecht Durer print and a sculpture at the Italian basilica known as Sacro Monte di Varallo (Sacred Mountain of Varallo).

Detail from “The Last Supper” by from the Small Passion by Albrecht Durer, 1511

Detail from “The Last Supper” by an unknown master, ca. 1500-05 at Sacro Monte di Varallo in Piedmont, Italty (Photo by Stefano Bistolfi, Wikimedia Commons)In the 1600s French painter Valentin de Boulogne presented a more humanistic view of Jesus and John. His painting uses dark shadows to heighten the emotional impact.

“St. John and Jesus at the Last Supper” by Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632) (Wikimedia Commons)In the 1800s the intimate bond between the two men is emphasized in “One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved” by the French painter Ary Scheffer (1795-1858).

“One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved” by Ary SchefferJesus and his beloved John appear in an 1890 stained-glass window at the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Eglise du Sacre-Coeur) in Lille, France. It is based on drawings by French painter Charles Alexandre Crauk.Jesus and Apostle John in stained-glass window

Jesus and Apostle John in stained-glass window at Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Eglise du Sacre-Coeur) in Lille, France, 1890 (Wikipedia)

Jesus tenderly kisses John’s forehead before giving him communion bread in a vintage French religious medal from the 1930s. It is available at the Fred’s Prayer shop on Etsy.

Jesus kisses John on an antique silver medal from the Fred’s Prayer shop on Etsy.

Contemporary icons show the Beloved Disciple

Artists continue to make new icons of Jesus and John in traditional style.  One of the newest is a contemporary Byzantine icon available at the Angelicon Etsy shop.  It was painted in egg tempera by the mother-daughter team of Eka and Ari in their small workshop in Crete, Greece.

Contemporary Byzantine icon of the Beloved Disciple. The original is available from the Angelicon Etsy shopAnother contemporary icon is “Christ the Bridegroom” by Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar known for his innovative icons. Author-priest Henri Nouwen, famous but struggling with a secret gay identity, commissioned it in 1983. He asked for an icon that symbolized the act of offering his own sexuality and affection to Christ. Research and reflection led Lentz to paint Christ being embraced by his beloved disciple John, based on an icon from medieval Crete.

Christ the Bridegroom, Br. Robert Lentz, OFM, © 1985.Amazon.com or Trinitystores.com“Henri used it to come to grips with his own homosexuality,” Lentz said in an interview for my book “Art That Dares,” which includes this icon and the story behind it. “I was told he carried it with him everywhere and it was one of the most precious things in his life.” Nouwen’s goal was celibacy and he did not come out publicly as gay before his death in 1996. The icon takes the Biblical theme of Christ as bridegroom and joins it to the medieval motif of Christ with John. The resulting image expresses their intimate friendship with exquisite subtlety. Prints are available at Amazon.com or Trinitystores.com.

John the Beloved Disciple in contemporary art

Over the centuries many artworks have illustrated the deep love between Jesus and his Beloved Disciple. A variety of contemporary artists have done new interpretations of John and Jesus together. Many of the historic images appear to show John as much younger than Jesus, but their age difference is de-emphasized and they both look like grown men in most of the newer images. Perhaps the reason for the change is growing awareness of the church’s complicity with pedophile priests, combined with the with the need for modern gay couples for find religious affirmation.

One of the newer images is “Beloved Disciple” by James Day, a student working towards a Masters of Arts in Theological Studies at Episcopal Divinity School in Boston. His focus is queer theology and liturgical arts. Day’s painting of the “Beloved Disciple” hung in the EDS Chapel in fall 2016.Beloved Disciple by James Day

“Beloved Disciple” by James Day

The wedding between Jesus and his beloved disciple is one of the LGBT Christian themes explored in monumental nude paintings by gay New Zealand artist Christopher Olwage. He gives a sacred gay interpretation to the wedding feast at Cana. Olwage is an LGBTQ activist and gender-bending ballet dancer who reigned as Mr. Gay World in 2013.

“The Wedding of Jesus and John ‘the Beloved Disciple’ at Cana” by Christopher Olwage

John in a detail from “Crucifixion” by Christopher Olwage

John also appears in a gay-affirming crucifixion painted in 2015 by Olwage. As Beloved Disciple, John kneels and throws his head back as he gazes up at Jesus on the cross. This “Crucifixion” shows a group of men reacting in various ways to the execution of their beloved Jesus. All are figures that Bible scholars believe may have had male-male sexual relationships. Next to John is Lazarus, who bows his head in sorrowful prayer beneath a rainbow hood. The Centurion and the servant “who was dear to him” stare out at the viewer from both edges of the frame. For more about Olwage’s art, see the previous posts Gay Wedding of Jesus and John at Cana and Gay Jesus painting shown in New Zealand: Christopher Olwage paints LGBT Christian scenes.

“Jesus and the Beloved Disciple” by Laurie Gudim

Another recent work is the 2012 icon “Jesus and the Beloved Disciple” by Laurie Gudim. Based in Colorado, Gudim is an artist, Jungian psychotherapist and progressive Episcopalian. Her work uses a motif dating back at least to the 13th century.The long artistic tradition depicts John as the Beloved Disciple resting his head on the breast of Jesus.

This sculpture spent many centuries in an Augustinian convent in Inzigkofen, a town in the region of Sigmaringen in southwestern Germany. A museum in Berlin acquired in it the early 20th century, and it is now housed in the Bode Museum of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.Atlanta artist Becki Jayne Harrelson painted another especially loving version of Jesus and the Beloved at the center of her “Last Supper.” Unlike the classic icons of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, her painting shows the two obviously adult men gazing at each other and holding hands. She is a contemporary lesbian artist who uses LGBT people as models in her religious art. Raised in a fundamentalist Christian family, she uses art to express her passion for justice. Her story is also told in “Art That Dares.”Detail from Study for The Last Supper
by Becki Jayne HarrelsonAnother icon celebrating the love between Jesus and the beloved disciple was painted by Jim Ru (below). It was displayed in his show “Transcendent Faith: Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Saints” in Bisbee Arizona in the 1990s.

“Jesus and the Beloved Disciple” by Jim RuIn recent years some artists have adapted the classic iconography to other racial and ethnic groups. For example, John Giuliani’s “Jesus and the Beloved Disciple” shows the figures in the native dress of the Aymara Indians, descendants of the Incas who still live in the Andean regions of Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Giuliani is an Italian-American artist and Catholic priest who is known for making Christian icons with Native American symbols. He studied icon painting under a master in the Russian Orthodox style, but chose to expand the concept of holiness to include Native Americans, the original inhabitants of the Americas.

“Jesus and the Beloved Disciple” by John Giuliani, 1996One more picture of Jesus and his beloved must be mentioned, even though permission was not granted to display it here on the Jesus in Love Blog (yet) at Q Spirit. It is well worthwhile to click the title to see this stunningly beautiful photo of Jesus and his Beloved Disciple as black Africans:“Every Moment Counts” (from “Ecstatic Antibodies”) by Rotimi Fani-KayodeFani-Kayode (1955-1989) was a Nigerian photographer who explored themes of sexual and cultural difference, homoerotic desire, spirituality and the black male body, often in collaboration with his late partner Alex Hirst. Their last joint work was “Every Moment Counts” from 1989. In it a beloved disciple leans against black Christ figure who wears pearls over his dreadlocks as he gazes toward heaven. “The hero points the way forward for the lost boys of the world – the young street-dreads, the nightclub-chickens, the junkies and the doomed,” Hirst explains on their website.

Beloved Disciple in poetry and music

Various poets have written about the love between Jesus and John from a gay or queer viewpoint. A gay man prays, wondering if Jesus felt sexual attraction to John, in a poem by longtime LGBTQ church activist and poet Louie Clay (né Louie Crew).

What did you feel when your beloved John
lay across your lap casually?

He wrote these lines raising the possibility of a queer Christ in his 1980 poem “Lutibelle Prays: William Werc’s Prayer.” In 1974 Clay founded Integrity USA, the national Episcopal LGBTQ organization.  The whole poem is posted at this link.

Another poem that addresses the homoerotic love between Jesus and John as is “The Third Dance of Christmas: A Fiddle Dance for St. John’s Day” by a poet who wants to be known only as Joe. It begins:Sweet John was a danceron the shore of old Capernauma lovely boy not fit for fishingor carpentry, or marrying.They tell he left his empty boatfor the sake of the bold young fellowwho looked at him that April mornand said, my love, come follow.The whole poem is posted at this link.

Queer poet Jim Wise references John in “Seminarians,” an unpublished poem from his “Queer Psalter” collection:

After a long day of
watching him preach
his gospel, which was
nothing more than
begging people to
actually give a damn
about one another,
we wanted to be his
Beloved John, his Lazarus,
his place to lay his head.

For more poetry by Wise, click here.

Contemporary America singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens merges homoerotic desire and spiritual longing in the song “John My Beloved.” Many listeners hear references in the song to the love between Jesus and his disciple John as well as to modern gay sexual encounters. The song is available on a YouTube video and the album from his album “Carrie and Lowell.”

Beloved Disciple excerpt from Jesus in Love: A Novel

I also wrote about John as the beloved disciple in my novels “Jesus in Love” and “At the Cross.” In honor of John’s feast day, I post this scene from “Jesus in Love: A Novel.” Jesus, the narrator, remembers the day he met John:

I became distracted by the not unwelcome presence of somebody standing close behind me, closer than necessary in the loosely packed crowd. I sensed that it was John, and spun around to see him planted there like a tall cedar tree. He leaned against me, eyes flashing. “I can’t wait for the Messiah to come. I’ve seen him in visions.”

“Really? Tell me what you remember.” It was exciting to find someone who was aware of God’s efforts to communicate.

“The Messiah is like a gentle lamb who sits on a throne with a rainbow around it. And yet his eyes flame with fire, and a sharp sword comes out of his mouth to strike down evildoers.”

“The truth is large,” I said.

“Are you saying my vision isn’t true?” he challenged.

“No, I’m not saying that. I expect that you will see more.”

When John smiled, his faced crinkled into a fascinating landscape of wrinkles. His eyes felt black and mysterious like the midnight sky as they roamed over me. “Do you want a prayer partner tonight?” he asked.

If anyone else had asked, I would have said no, but I looked again at John’s handsome, bejeweled soul and his long, sinewy body.

“Sure,” I agreed impulsively.

Only then did I notice that the Baptist had finished preaching. John steered me toward the caves where the Baptist and his inner circle of disciples lived. Lower-ranking disciples were ready with water vessels and towels to assist everyone with ritual purification before we ate a spartan meal of locusts and wild honey. One of them approached me.

“Wash up, and we’ll get together after supper,” John said as we parted.

Beloved Disciple prayers

Q Spirit’s Litany of Queer Saints includes these lines:

Saint John, Beloved Disciple, apostle and evangelist, pray for us.

Links related to the Beloved Disciple

Disciple whom Jesus loved (Wikipedia)St John the Evangelist and Prochorus” (Queer Saints and Martyrs)Book: “St. John the Divine: The Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology” by Jeffrey F. Hamburger“Brother, Bride and alter Christus: The Virginal Body of John the Evangelist in Medieval Art, Theology and Literature” by Jeffrey F. HamburgerTo read this article in Spanish, go to:San Juan el Evangelista: Discípulo Amado de Jesús (Santos Queer)

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Top image credit: Detail from Study for The Last Supper by Becki Jayne Harrelson
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This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.

This article was originally published on Q Spirit in December 2016 and was updated for accuracy and expanded with new material on Dec. 27, 2020.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Qspirit.net presents the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBTQ spirituality.

Kittredge Cherry

Kittredge Cherry is a lesbian Christian author who writes regularly about LGBTQ spirituality. She holds degrees in religion, journalism and art history. She was ordained by Metropolitan Community Churches and served as its national ecumenical officer, advocating for LGBTQ rights at the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches.

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