Icons of John the Baptist, John the Forerunner

Icon of John the Baptist in the Greek Style

Icon of John the Baptist in the Greek Style

The memory of the righteous is celebrated with hymns of praise,
but the Lord’s testimony is sufficient for you, O Forerunner.
You were shown in truth to be the most honorable of the prophets,
for you were deemed worthy to baptize in the streams of the Jordan Him whom they foretold.
Therefore, having suffered for the truth with joy,
you proclaimed to those in hell God who appeared in the flesh,
who takes away the sin of the world, and grants us great mercy.

August 29 is the day which commemorates the Beheading of the Holy Glorious Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John. We know John as a prophet – the greatest and last prophet of the “Old Testament”, who specifically announced the coming of the Messiah, Who was Jesus. We also know how he preached in the wilderness, baptized Jesus Christ, and finally was beheaded on the orders of Herod for censuring the King.

The Icon shown above encompasses all of this teaching and tradition in one image. It is an English or North American Icon painted in a style that arose in the 15th and 16th centuries in Greek-speaking countries. It is also found in some Balkan countries too (Bulgarian, Serbian, Macedonian), though this is probably due to the influence of the old Byzantine Empire upon these areas. What sets this icon apart, and is probably the most striking part of the Icon, is the wings given to the figure of John the Baptist. The presence of the wings is to symbolize nothing more or less than John’s status as a divine messenger (in Greek “Evangelos”, from where the word “Angel” is derived). Aesthetic Saints are often described as living the radically non-worldly “angelic life”, and so the wings are recognizing John as the archetype of this desert living.

Other than the wings, John is depicted in the same way as he is in most icons: in the desert, wearing animal skins, with unkempt beard and long hair (compare the icon of St. Andrew the Apostle, who was a disciple of John). The axe laying at the foot of a tree is an obvious reference to John’s own prophetic warning recorded in Scripture:

And even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

To the bottom right of the picture, is John’s head on a platter, just as it was presented to Herod’s step-daughter, according to the Gospel of Matthew. It is because of this that John also holds a cross – the cross of martyrdom – and is turned to Christ in supplication, holding a scroll bearing the words:

Seest Thou what suffer those who censure, O Word of God, the faults of the unclean. Not being able to bear censure, Lo Herod cut off my head, O Saviour.

Over St. John’s camel-skin clothing is invariably a green robe, which symbolizes “earthliness”, and in this case it is because John grew up outside, in the wilderness. Later saints who also took up the Christian struggle in the wilderness can also be depicted in green for the same reason, and are sometimes known as “Green Martyrs”. That is to say they are martyrs (literally meaning witness) to the Faith, not by the shedding of blood, but by their ascetic struggle. Of course, St John is a both a green martyr and a martyr who shed his blood, hence the presence of the green robe and the cross.

John the Baptist preaching in hell

John the Baptist preaching in hell

What else do we know of this glorious prophet and forerunner of Christ? Tradition, hymnography (see the hymn at the top of this post), and iconography all tell us that not only was John the forerunner of Christ on earth, but also in Hades. Before Jesus’ crucifixion, death, burial, and descent into Hades, John too descended there to preach the Gospel of Repentance and coming of the Messiah to the imprisoned souls. Therefore Icons of this dispensation of God exist too in order to instruct and inspire the faithful to reverence of John. As the hymns sung on August the 29th proclaim: The glorious beheading of the Forerunner, became an act of divine dispensation, for he preached to those in hell the coming of the Savior. Let Herodias lament, for she entreated lawless murder, loving not the law of God, nor eternal life, but that which is false and temporal.

This entry was posted in History, Icons of Christ, Icons of the Incarnation, The Saints and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Icons of John the Baptist, John the Forerunner

  1. Pingback: An Icon of the Head of John the Forerunner | A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

  2. William Manning says:

    Many years ago, when I was being catechized in preparation for reception into the Church, I was told that the deacon stands before the beautiful gates which separated us from paradise. His right hand, holding his stole, was raised and that there was some sort of symbolic connection between this posture and St. John “The Angel of the Desert”. I have not been able to find this observation anywhere and assume I heard incorrectly. Can you clarify this for me.

    • iconreader says:

      Hello Mr Manning:

      I cannot clarify, and I have not heard of this connection before. For what it’s worth, when I first read your comments, I immediately thought of images of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, where St John the Baptist is sometimes shown raising his hand to pour water over Christ’s head:


      However, the image of arm raised high most resonates with Verrocchio’s painting of the Baptism of Christ:


      …so much so that I wonder if it this painting and other post-Renaissance pictures has more of an influence on this interpretation.

      As far as I know, raising the stole is just a liturgical act with the practical purpose of getting the congregation’s attention and signifying that he is leading the faithful in prayer (as he is often doing when standing before the Royal Doors). I suspect, but could easily be wrong, that any further reading into the symbolism of this particular posture is done after it became established.

  3. Pingback: St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner †30 « Arms Open Wide

  4. Pingback: The June Menaion Icon | A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

  5. Pingback: Pope Francis' frequent references to the reality of the Devil have struck many... - Page 8 - Christian Forums

  6. Doris says:

    Hi! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay. I’m definitely enjoying
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  7. Pingback: Why does John the Baptist have wings in Orthodox icons? | A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

  8. Dan says:

    I have been casually studying iconography and was wondering about the letters and images that often appear beside an icon of John the Baptist. Often I will see what appears to be an Iota and an Omega (IW), there are often small round symbols that look like a casual drawing of a snail, other sykmbols located in a circle (possibly a lambda), and often a configuration of many letters and lines that may include a rho, delta, nu, omicron…any help on this?

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