You probably recognize this icon as Ioann Bogoslov — John “the Theologian” — the apostle and purported evangelist John.
This type — which we have seen previously — is commonly known as John “in Silence,” because of his fingers to his mouth and the angel on his shoulder inspiring him as he writes the first words of the gospel attributed to him, which begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the word…etc.
Did you notice, however, that in this example the fingers of his right hand form the Old Believer sign of blessing at his lips, which marks this as an Old Believer icon?
Not all icons of “John in Silence” have that finger position — even if they are painted in the old manner. The following icon, for example, shows John with one finger to his lips, as though he is thinking, “Hmmm … what should I write next?” Other finger positions are also found from example to example by painters who did not depict the Old Believer blessing sign.
You also perhaps noticed that the second icon has the book text upside down from John’s viewpoint, but easier to read by the viewer of the icon.
Notice also that in the second example, the angel does not have a simple halo as in the first. Instead he has the eight-point “glory” (slava) and the abbreviation Д С (D S) for Dukh Svyatuiy — “Holy Spirit.” So though in some examples John has just an angel on his shoulder, this icon makes it clear that John is being inspired in writing his gospel by the Holy Spirit.
There is another element to notice in the first icon of John — the presence of the symbol of the Evangelist at left. It is a lion. A rather odd looking one, admittedly, but the painter has likely never seen a real one.
Now you have no doubt seen the photos of the statue of the winged lion in Venice, near the Basilica of St. Mark; there the lion is the symbol for Mark. But Old Believer icons favor the interpretation of the lion as John, and the eagle as Mark.
By contrast. here is an icon of John in silence depicting his symbol as the eagle, which was the form generally adopted by the State Russian Orthodox Church:
The angel in this example is again simply identified as an “Angel of the Lord,” not as the Holy Spirit.
Such details are often overlooked by the casual viewer, but students of icons must be more careful.
Here is another icon of “John in Silence.”
This icon also uses a variant finger position, and identifies the shoulder angel as the Holy Spirit. Though the book is only slightly open, the text on the right page begins with the same words as in the other examples.
And here is a version of “John in Silence” surrounded by scenes from his traditional “life.” This painter has given him the lion as his symbol, but this time without wings:
The title inscription says:
OBRAZ ZHITIYA I STRASTI CHUDOTVORTSA GOSPODNYA I EVANGELISTA IOANNA BOGOSLOVA
“IMAGE OF THE LIFE AND SUFFERINGS OF THE WONDERWORKER OF GOD AND EVANGELIST JOHN THE THEOLOGIAN.”
From all this we can see that icons need not be exact copies of one another, but in spite of the differences, we still easily can recognize the standard type name for each of these “John in Silence” images.