Where? Hall 11 of the Main Building in the Pushkin Museum
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Saint Mark, the writer of the Gospel of Mark dressed in a nice dark blue cloak. His face is illuminated by the light that comes from the left. His beard is long and somewhat messy and his hair is unkempt. His hands are beautifully painted. Saint Mark is in his thoughts with his right hand against his chest and his left hand resting on top of some books. On the left side of the painting, you can see the face of a lion, which is the attribute associated with Saint Mark. The Lion of Saint Mark holding a Bible is actually the symbol of the city of Venice. On the right side of the painting, above Saint Mark’s left shoulder, you can see the signature FH (combined into a single symbol), which Frans Hals used to sign some of his paintings.
Backstory: This portrait is part of a series of four depicting the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The paintings of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke are in the Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Ukraine. The painting of Saint John the Evangelist is in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. These four paintings were acquired by the Russian Empress Catherine II for the Hermitage Museum in 1771. One ship containing most of the paintings sank and the second one, containing the works of Frans Hals, got damaged on the way from The Netherlands to Saint Petersburg but reached its destination. In 1812, these paintings were brought to the Ukraine to decorate some churches, but during the transport the four paintings got separated, and it is unknown what happened to them. Saint Mark was rediscovered in 1972, and in 2013 the Pushkin Museum acquired it.
Who is Saint Mark? John Mark was an assistant of the apostles Paul and Barnabas who he joined on their missionary journeys in the first century AD. He was both a friend and an interpreter for these two apostles. In early Christianity, John Mark was considered to be the writer of the Gospel of Mark. However, nowadays, there is serious doubt on whether John Mark was indeed the author of the Gospel of Mark. One of the reasons for this is that John and Mark were very common names during those days and so there can be many other people who could be identified as the author of the gospel.
Who is Hals? Frans Hals the Elder was born in 1582/1583 in Antwerp, Belgium and died in 1666 in Haarlem, The Netherlands. He is known for his portraits and his lively and colorful depictions of militia (local armies of non-professional soldiers). His paintings on the four evangelists are not very representative of him as these are his only (known) religious paintings. His work was forgotten a bit after he died, but at the start of the Impressionist movement in 1860, Hals was rediscovered and has only grown in popularity since. Nowadays, Hals is considered to be one of the prime examples of painters in the Dutch Golden Age, together with Rembrandt and Vermeer.
Fun fact: In 1955, this painting was anonymously sold as a work of the Italian painter Luca Giordano. In 1972, the painting was up for auction at Christie’s as a work from an anonymous painter with the title ‘Portrait of a Bearded Man.’ However, the German art critic, Claus Grimm, figured out that this painting was the missing painting by Frans Hals of Saint Mark. This was not an easy task as the painting had substantially changed as you can see in the first picture below. In the 19th century, someone had painted a large white pleated collar around the neck of Saint Mark to make it look like a Baroque painting. Moreover, the painting had lost all its color. The second picture below shows how the painting looked after an initial rigorous restoration. It is amazing to see how the picture subsequently has been restored to what we can see it today.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Written by Eelco Kappe