One of the first icons I studied when I began research several decades ago was that of John the Baptist, called John the Forerunner (Ioann Predtecha) in icon inscriptions.
Icons of John are interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they tend to mix together related images in a somewhat dream-like fashion.
In this Palekh-style pattern for an icon, for example, we see John the Baptist in the type sometimes called “Angel of the Desert,” meaning John is shown winged and standing in the wilderness, which in very old icons consists of a few abstract rocks and a tree. But in later examples such as this, the wilderness is often shown as a forested area, because painters of that time, having never seen a dry desert, visualized John’s wild and deserted habitat as a forest.
Why does John have wings? We could say it is because in Eastern Orthodoxy he is termed a “heavenly man and earthly angel,” but we need to go one step beyond that, to the Greek New Testament account in Mark 1:2-3 that first tells us about John:
Ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου, ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν
σου: φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς
That probably does not mean much to you unless you read Greek. What it says is:
“Behold, I send my angel/messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way; a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'”
Now the reason I have written “angel/messenger” to translate the word highlighted and italicized in Greek is to point out that it — angelos — has a double meaning: it means both messenger and angel. The word “angel” originally meant a messenger — but it can also mean just an ordinary messenger. So when reading Mark 1:2-3, Eastern Orthodox iconography chose to emphasize the “angel” meaning of the word — a divine messenger, i.e. an angel, therefore John was given wings. That is the odd logic of icon painting.
Further, John is often shown holding a kind of chalice or salver, and in it — if we see it up close — is depicted the naked child Christ, lying down. John is pointing at the Child. This again is something of a mystery to the student, until he realizes that such icons are mixing the imagery of the Bible with the imagery of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy — the equivalent of the Catholic Mass. You see that in the detail of the right panel of a three-panel Deisus (Greek Deisis) set:
But before I explain further, we need one more piece of the puzzle. For that we need to consider John’s scroll.
In Russian icons, saints and other figures do not speak in cartoon bubbles. They speak in scrolls. So the scroll a saint holds is a kind of cartoon bubble that speaks to the viewer.
In this example, John’s scroll is a slight variant of:
POKAITESYA, PRIBLIZHIBOSYA TSARSTVIE NEBESNOE
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is come near.”
In icons of John depicting a tree, we usually see, if we look closely, that there is an axe cutting into its trunk. This image comes from the statement of John that, as given in Luke 3:9:
Ужé бо и сѣки́ра при кóрени дрéва лежи́тъ: вся́ко ýбо дрéво, не творя́щее плодá добрá, посѣкáется и во óгнь вметáется.
“And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.”
John’s scroll usually says:
AZ VIDEKH I SVIDETELSTVO VA ONEN CE AGNETS BOZHIY VZEMLYAI GRYEKHI MIRA
It means: “I saw and witnessed concerning him, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.'”
That quote requires a jump to the Gospel of John, 1:29, which gives us this in Church Slavic:
Во ýтрiй [же] ви́дѣ Иоáннъ Иисýса грядýща къ себѣ́ и глагóла: сé, áгнецъ Бóжiй, взéмляй грѣхи́ мíра:
“On the morrow John saw Jesus coming to him and said: ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.'”
The example below uses that “I saw and witnessed” inscription, but shortens it slightly due to lack of space:
Sometimes one finds both the “I saw and witnessed” inscription and the “Repent, for the Kingdom Of Heaven” inscription on the same scroll.
Now we can return to the question of why John holds a chalice (sometimes shown as a kind of salver) with the child Jesus in it. That again is imagery from the Orthodox liturgy, in which a part of the eucharistic bread is called the agnets, the “Lamb.” The bread in the liturgy is Christ. So what John holds, whether it looks like a chalice or a salver, is actually a footed diskos, the “dish” in the liturgy that holds the bread — and the bread is the body of Christ. So in icon-think, all these elements are mixed up together in one picture. Do not expect icons to make chronological sense. Instead they work with mixing images that relate in some way, no matter what their origin. Again, it is somewhat the way dreams work, where one symbol associates with another, but the whole picture does not seem to make sense in the real world. A dream makes “dream sense,” and an icon makes “icon sense.”
If you look closely at the “diskos” held by John in the second image, you will see lines curving upward and inward from it, meeting in a little star at the top. This represents the liturgical implement called the asteriskos, the “star-cover.” Its purpose is to support the cloth veil that is placed over the diskos during the Eucharistic ritual in Eastern Orthodoxy. If you recall that the Child Christ as “Lamb of God” lies on the diskos, then you will see why this metal “star-cover” represents the Star of Bethlehem.
So that is the knowledge essential to understanding basic icons of John. There are more complex icons, but no need to deal with those right now.
It is important to remember, as I have said, that icons have their own logic, and it is a logic of association of images. It can be very complex, drawing from a great many different sources, but all one really needs to know is how this mixture presents itself in icons. Those who have studied Jungian thought will quickly notice parallels with dream images and the concept of archetypes.
Some icons of John have background scenes showing incidents from his life as found in both New Testament and apocryphal sources, for example an angel leading the child John into the wilderness, etc. We see such scenes in this icon:
At middle left is an angel leading the child John into the wilderness; at lower left is the birth of John the Forerunner; at lower right is the beheading of John, and at upper right is the discovery of his head.
This particular example is rather unusual in that the image of God the Father (“Lord Sabaoth) shown in the clouds at the top depicts him turned sideways instead of full-face, as is customary. Another unusual feature is that instead of bearing the Christ Child in a vessel (symbolizing the “Lamb” in the Eucharistic bread), John here carries his own head. The head in the container instead of Jesus as “Lamb” was and is the preferred form in Greek iconography, and it was also the standard form in Russian iconography until the 17th century, when the “Child” in the chalice began to replace it. When John’s head is in the container, it tends to emphasize the death of John as a kind of “forerunner” to the death of Jesus, and of course as mentioned, the “Child” in the chalice has Eucharistic significance. A third unusual feature in this image is that the painter has placed the cross of martyrdom in John’s right hand, something generally omitted in this type.
By the way, notice in the example below that all of the icon surface except for the central painting is covered with ornate metal. Such adornment was common on very old icons, and yes, the metal was attached by nailing it right onto the surface. That is why old icons, when these covers are removed, are seen to be full of little nail holes. The metal covering was added as a sign of respect, though punching numerous holes in the surface of a painting may not seem so to us today.