An Early Eighteenth Century Antependium of St. John the Evangelist

The antependium (or altar frontal) is something that only a decade ago was relatively uncommon in many Catholic churches. Fortunately, over the past decade, the use of antependia have become significantly more commonplace -- at least amongst the adherents of the new liturgical movement.

As is to be expected, most frontals are reasonably straightforward in their form yet also quite beautiful and noble, however some take matters to an entirely different level and are masterpieces in their own right. These come out of a time when guilds and religious communities invested years of effort into their creation -- the work being done by hand, often for significant churches or religious institutions.

Recently I came across an example of just such a frontal, coming from early 18th century Italy. It is a red frontal and appears to be themed primarily around the life of St. John the Evangelist. (This might strike some as odd since St. John did not die a martyrs death, however in the tradition, St. John is considered to be akin to a martyr, having barely survived being boiled in oil -- which is why you will find numerous paintings on the subject of the "martyrdom" of St. John the Evangelist.)

Regrettably I have no further information about this particular antependium as it was in the hands of a private owner. However despite the lack of information, its beauty makes it worth a look anyway.  Above you can see the entirety of the frontal, but it is also worth looking at its details. To begin with, let's take a look at it in its left and right halves to get a better sense of the overall design and its sumptuous details.

Left half
Right half
Now, let's take a closer look.  The central medallion contains an image of St. John who, according to Tertullian, was boiled alive in oil in Rome but survived. One can see the eagles, the symbol associated with St. John and his gospel, to either side of the medallion.

The left-most medallion shows four seated figures, possibly four of the "Great Fathers" of the Latin Church. Above these four seated figures is an image of an apostolic era saint, which is likely St. John:

The right-most medallion also appears to show St. John -- the eagle located near his feet. He is surrounded by angels. This is perhaps a representation of him on the Island of Patmos.

Seven smaller medallions surround this central panel on the top and the sides. First off, I will note that the eagle of St. John the Evangelist once again makes an appearance in the ornamental details here. The first medallion once again shows St. John the Evangelist, this time holding a chalice with a serpent in it, and once again the eagle is shown at his feet. Next to him we see what looks to be St. Peter, the keys in his hand -- though it is difficult to make out from this image.

The central most medallion shows an image of the crucifixion with the figures of Our Lady and St. John to either side:

The final two medallions along the top are difficult to make out due to the image quality. They depict two saints holding objects that are difficult to discern here, however based on the period of their dress they would appear to be either other apostles or evangelists -- or perhaps they intend to depict other aspects from the life of St. John.

Finally, the medallions to the left and right side of the frontal depicts two early female martyrs, each holding a martyrs' palm in their hand.  Here again, which martyrs these might be is difficult to discern -- perhaps Ss. Perpetua and Felicty -- due to the image quality.

Finally, I would conclude our consideration of this superb antependium by giving a closer look at one of the many eagles that depicted are depicted upon it -- which, as noted earlier, is a symbol of St. John.

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