The Life of St John the Baptist in Iconography

Icon of John the Baptist (16th Century, now in Yaroslavl)

Icon of John the Baptist, with scenes from his life (16th Century, now in Yaroslavl)

For the Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist (Aug 29), I have posted a vita icon, which shows not only John the Forerunner and Baptist, but many of the other feasts and traditions associated with him.

An explanation of the scenes often found in these icons is given below.

The scenes used in the 16th century Yaroslavl icon at the top of this post are taken from a number of well-established sources: the Protoevangelium of James, the Gospels (notably St Luke’s), and other histories of the Church that record what happened to St John the Baptist’s remains after his beheading. Starting at the top left, and going from left to right across the icon, the scenes shown are:

  1. The angel Gabriel appears to St Zachariah in the Temple, announcing the future conception of a son: to be called John (Luke 1:11-17).
  2. Zachariah is struck dumb for doubting the angel’s words, the people outside the Temple realizing he has had a vision of God (Luke 1:18-22)
  3. The Conception of John the Baptist (Luke 1:23-25)
  4.  The visitation of Elizabeth’s cousin Mary, the Mother of God (Luke 1:39-42)
  5. The Nativity of John the Baptist
  6. The murder of St Zachariah in the Temple by Herod’s soldiers, for not revealing where John the Baptist was hidden (Protoevangelium of James Ch.23; alluded to in Luke 11:51)
  7. St. Elizabeth hides the young John from the Herodian soldiers in the cleft of a mountain (Protoevangelium of James Ch 22, paralleled by Mary and Joseph’s flight into Egypt with Christ; Matthew 2:13-23)
  8. St. John, as a youth, is led into the desert by an angel, fulfilling the promises given to Zachariah, and Zachariah’s own prophecy (Luke 1:67-80)
  9. After years of ascetic life, “the word of God comes to John… in the wilderness. (Luke 3:2)
  10. John baptizes Jesus Christ in the River Jordan
  11. John baptizes the multitudes who flock to him (Matthew 3:1-6)
  12. John denounces the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7-10)
  13. John is imprisoned for his criticism of Herod Antipas (not the same Herod who ordered the murder of Zachariah)
  14. The Feast of Herod, where Salomne is presented with the head of John the Baptist after beguiling Herod with her dancing.
  15. The Beheading of John the Baptist (the last three scenes are all recorded in Matthew 14:1-12 and Mark 6:14-29)
  16. John’s disciples take his body away for burial (usually shown without the head – Matthew 14:12)
  17. St John the Baptist appears in a dream to monks, telling them where to find his head.
  18. The First Finding of the Head of John the Baptist
  19. The appearance of St John to a monk in his sleep.
  20. The Second Finding of the Head of St John the Baptist

Other scenes that might be present include: Zachariah, mute, writing out the name of John; the denunciation of Herod by John; the preaching of John in Hades (the forerunner of Christ in life and death); In the centre stands John the Forerunner himself: the “angel”, or messenger, of the desert, holding a platter with his head. Other icons may show St John holding a platter with the infant Christ on it, also known as the melismos, or the Lamb of God.

The memory of the just is celebrated with hymns of praise, but the Lord’s testimony is sufficient for you, O Forerunner;
For you have proved to be truly even more venerable than the Prophets, since you were granted to baptize in the running waters Him Whom they proclaimed.
Wherefore, having contested for the truth, you rejoiced to announce the good tidings even to those in Hades:
That God has appeared in the flesh, taking away the sin of the world and granting us great mercy.

A gallery of Vita icons for St John the Baptist will follow soon.


The Protoevangelium of James

The Beheading of John the Forerunner and Baptist

The Nativity of John the Forerunner and Baptist

The Baptism of Christ (by St John)

The First and Second Finding of the Head of John the Forerunner

The Third Finding of the Head of John the Baptist


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

4 Responses to The Life of St John the Baptist in Iconography

  1. Pingback: theraineyview

  2. Thank you for your site, I have learned a great deal from reading it. I have an icon question that indirectly concerns John the Baptist. My actual question is about his mother St Elizabeth. I have seen several icons on the Internet attributed to her and I’ve seen the same icon attributed both to her and to a different St Elizabeth from the 5th Century. How is an icon of St Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist identified and what attributes are written in her icon?

    Thank you,

    • iconreader says:

      The easiest answer is to look at the inscription! This is not as flippant an answer as it appears, as most icons less than 200 years old will have perfectly legible inscriptions. The mother of St John is usually given the title “Righteous” (so knowing this word in Slavonic, Greek, Romanian etc. helps) along with other saints classified as “Old Covenant”.

      Icons older than 200 years are unlikely to show St Elizabeth on her own. More likely she will appear as part of a larger composition that helps to identify her even if the inscription is illegible. St Elizabeth is most likely to be seen with the infant John (in icons of John’s nativity), embracing the Mother of God (scenes of the Visitation), or embracing Zechariah (images of the conception of St John the Baptist). A church fresco that shows a St Elizabeth “alone”, standing with other saints who aren’t St John or Zechariah, are not likely to be Righteous Elizabeth.

      There is no distinguishing clothing or defining attribute associated with Righteous Elizabeth, although her hand may be held up with the pal outwards, indicating steadfastness in faith. However, the other, 5th-century, Elizabeth *can* be identified by her monastic clothing, the cloak or staff of an abbess, or sometimes she is shown trampling a dragon. This won’t help in identifying whether an icon is of Righteous Elizabeth, but it will help in identifying whether it is definitely not her.

      Hope this helps.

  3. Pingback: Why does John the Baptist have wings in Orthodox icons? | A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

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