In earlier postings we have seen how Russians depict John the Baptist, more commonly called “John the Forerunner” in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Today we will take a look at a later Greek icon of John:
The title inscription at the top reads:
Ο ΑΓΙΟΣ ΙѠ ο προδρομος
The initial “O” is the word “the” (used with masculine nouns). In old Greek it is pronounced “HO” here, but in modern Greek pronunciation it is just pronounced “O.”
The Second word ΑΓΙΟΣ similarly has an added “h” in old pronunciation, making it HAGIOS. In modern Greek it is pronounced more like A-yos. In both cases it means literally “Holy,” and is the word used for a saint.
The two letters ΙѠ have a curved line above them on the icon to show that they are an abbreviation. Here they abbreviate Ἰωάννης, Ioannes, the Greek form of the name “John.”
Then comes the word ho again (meaning “the”), which when put together with the last word gives:
ο προδρομος = Ho Prodromos
Ho Prodromos means “The Foreunner”; and so we have the whole inscription, translated:
“[The] Holy John the Forerunner”
In Greek the definite article the (ho here) is often used where in English it would be left out; that is why the first “the” above is in brackets).
If you are familiar with the iconography of John in Russia, there is little different in Greek icons other than painting style and inscription language. You may recall that the two most common scroll inscriptions for icons of John are:
1. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
2. “I saw and witnessed concerning him, behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
If you know that the Greek word metanoia means “repentance” (more literally “to change one’s mind”), then you will have little difficulty deciding which inscription is depicted in this Greek icon.
The scroll John holds in this icon reads:
κε[ν] γὰρ ἡ
α τῶν οὐ
It is taken from Matthew 3:2, which, when the divided words on the scroll are joined, reads:
Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.
Metanoeite, engiken gar he basileia ton ouranon.
“Repent-you, neared for the Kingdom of the Heavens”
or in King James English,
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
So we see there is nothing unusual about this image. The cross staff he holds in his hand is common in Western European paintings of John, but is not common in Russian depictions.
The tree at left in this example seems merely ornamental, but it is a vestigial reminder of the tree often seen with an axe at its base in many icons of John, a reflection of John’s words in Matthew 3:10 (and Luke 3:9):
“And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.”
So whether you encounter John the Baptist as Predtecha in Russian icons or Prodromos in Greek icons, it is the same “Forerunner” title, and you should have no trouble recognizing John and, in most cases, in deciphering his scroll inscriptions.
As I often repeat, icons are very repetitive, so a little learning goes a long way.