A wealth of intriguing details defines this impressive composition by the Flemish Mannerist master, Jan Massys. Accompanied by his attribute the eagle, Saint John the Evangelist stands on the shore of the island of Patmos looking toward the tumultuous sky, his twisting pose accentuating the elongation of his limbs. Scattered on the rocky ground before him are the implements he uses to write his Book of Revelation, which brings a close to the New Testament and describes his Apocalyptic visions of the struggle between Good and Evil culminating in Armageddon. Several of John’s visions are portrayed amidst swirling clouds of ocher and white. To the left of Patmos’ trees appears a “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon” and wearing “a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1) who is generally identified as the Virgin Mary. Soaring toward the heavens, the infant near her corresponds to the “man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron” (Revelation 12:5) described by Saint John, and who is similarly understood to be representative of Christ. The woman is shown with wings, as she was given two “of a great eagle” (Revelation 12:14) so that she might escape the treacherous floodwaters unleashed from the “great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns” (Revelation 12:3) that may be seen writhing below her.
To the right of the trees, an angel hovers beneath an opening in the clouds, having cast a great millstone toward the sea to destroy Babylon, in keeping with the account given in Revelation 18:21. In the distance lies the smoldering city, its fiery remains emitting scarlet-stained plumes of smoke that fill the sky. In the foreground, men and women lament the doomed city and their fate, while merchants on ships throw their arms up in despair as the source of their great wealth is reduced to ruins. On the other side of the composition, more ships with wind-filled sails navigate the sea near a minutely rendered town, while monstrous fish emerge from the water. These vignettes within the panoramic landscape not only enhance the painting’s narrative content but also serve as a visually pleasing reward for careful inspection of the composition.
Unknown to scholars prior to its sale in 2013, this monumental panel dates to Jan Massys’ second Antwerp period, following his extensive travels through Italy and (possibly) France. The painting’s horizontal format in which the main protagonist is flanked by the destruction of a city on one side and a calmer landscape on the other recalls Massys’ Lot and his Daughters (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), which was painted the same year. The artist revisited the latter subject again in 1565 in a similar work now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. Here, Massys departed from convention by choosing to include the destruction of Babylon in his representation of Saint John on Patmos; the artist’s Boschian treatment of the scene adds a nightmarish note to the composition that underscores the harrowing character of the Evangelist's visions.