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.
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.