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Saint John the Evangelist
Hans Memling
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Saint John the Evangelist holds a chalice from which a serpent escapes. He appears on the inside of the left shutter of a small triptych (a painting in three parts), the central panel and other wing of which are also in the National Gallery’s collection. They were painted for the Welsh nobleman and diplomat Sir John Donne, probably in the late 1470s.

According to the apocryphal Acts of Saint John, the saint was made to drink poison but survived; the serpent here symbolises the poison. Although this figure of Saint John was presumably taken from a workshop pattern, infrared reflectograms show that the artist drew several versions of the hands and chalice before he was satisfied with them, and they were finally painted in slightly different position to any of the underdrawings.

On the back of the panel Saint Anthony Abbot, a third-century hermit, is painted in grisaille (shades of black, white and grey) as if he is a statue in a niche.

Key facts
Artist Hans Memling
Artist dates active 1465; died 1494
Full title Saint John the Evangelist
Group The Donne Triptych
Date made about 1478
Medium and support Oil on oak
Dimensions 71 x 30.5 cm
Acquisition credit Acquired under the terms of the Finance Act from the Duke of Devonshire's Collection, 1957
Inventory number NG6275.3
Location in Gallery Room 63
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The Donne Triptych

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Courtier and soldier Sir John Donne kneels before the Virgin and Christ Child in the central panel of this triptych (a painting in three parts), which he commissioned, facing his wife Elizabeth and one of their daughters. With them are Saints Catherine and Barbara, two of the most popular medieval saints; the wings show Donne’s patron saints, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. On the outside of the wings Saints Christopher and Anthony Abbot are shown as stone statues in niches.

The younger son of a Welsh soldier, Donne was a career administrator who owed his fortune to King Edward IV. He and his wife wear the King’s livery collars. The composition is a version of Memling’s famous Triptych of the Two Saints John (Memling Museum, Bruges), which he worked on in the late 1470s. Perhaps Donne saw it in Memling’s workshop and asked for something similar.