Today’s icon is an easy one to recognize. It is John the Forerunner (John the Baptist). This icon appears to be from an iconostasis, more specifically from the “Deisis” tier that shows numerous saints approaching Jesus from both sides, like petitioners approaching the emperor in a Byzantine court. In fact Christians tended to imagine Heaven as being like the court of an emperor, with saints waiting with their requests on behalf of humanity.
We should recognize John from his long and tangled hair, hIs scraggly beard, and his shaggy, hairy garment that in Russia was commonly called a vlasyanitsa, meaning a “hair shirt.” But if there remains any doubt, it is removed by the title inscription:
As you can see, there is no space between the words. The first word Svyatuiy, meaning “Holy” (thus “Saint”) is abbreviated:
We see the С (s) with a Т (t) above it, followed by the Ы (ui) that merges into the Й. We have to add the missing letters to read it as Svyatuiy, but this “Holy” title for saints is so common and prevalent in icons that we should now easily recognize what it is.
The second word is his name, IOAN (John):
We see the I, then the O in the form of the old Greek letter Omega, followed by the A and the N. Remember that in reading Cyrillic letters, when the bar slants to the left (И), the letter is an “I” but when it slants to the right or seems to be straight, it is an “N” (Н) The little letter that looks somewhat like “b” written above the “N” is Ъ; it has no sound of its own, but affects the pronunciation of the preceding consonant (you need not worry about that if you just want to read instead of pronounce; think of it as a silent letter).
Now we come to the last word, PREDTECHA, meaning “Forerunner.” The painter has written in in two parts, with the ПРЕД- (Pred-) in the first line, Notice that he has written the “d” (д) above the “PR” as a susperscript letter, though it is faded here:
He has written the -ТЕЧА (-techa) in the second line. The little mark that looks like a flower at the end of the title is just ornamentation:
It would be easy to mistake the very last letter for a Cyrillic И (“i”), but it is not; it is just that the upward-sloping line joining the left vertical in the “a” to the right vertical has worn away with age.
Did you notice, by the way, how the painter has left quite visible the scratched-in lines that mark out the space for writing the title?
So, we have the whole title inscription: SVYATUIY IOAN PREDTECHA, “HOLY JOHN THE FORERUNNER.”
A characteristic of old Russian icons in general is the elongation of the figures, with the bodies of the saints “stretched out” to a quite unnatural degree. This was an attempt to distinguish them from ordinary, worldly people, and to show us that we are seeing a “spiritual” depiction of a saint rather than the mere “physical” body. We find the same thing in earlier Western European sculpture of the Romanesque and Gothic periods. This lengthening of the saints also fits well with the proportions of the icon screen into which such an icon might be fitted.
So here is John, with his feet resting on the little field of dark color at the bottom, the “ground” that is so characteristic of many Russian icons of the 17th century:
As you can see, John’s shaggy, hairy garment is painted by simply adding multiple thin strokes of very whitened color over the darker background. Notice also that this icon, like many before the 18th century, has a kovcheg, an “ark” or “box,” meaning that the image has a raised border and a recessed surface upon which the image of the saint is painted. One sometimes finds a kovcheg in later icons, but it is more common in earlier examples. It meant more work in preparing the panel for painting — considerably more work in a panel the size of this icon of John.