Here is an icon of John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) in the form commonly known as “Angel of the Wilderness/Desert.”
As seems to be frequently the case lately, I discussed this icon type in a previous posting, and much of it applies to this example:
Nonetheless, it would be useful to have a review using this particular icon.
First, let’s look at the title inscription, which is at top left and right:
ѠБРАЗ СОБОРЪ СВЯТАГО …
OBRAZ SOBOR” SVYATAGO …
IMAGE [of the] ASSEMBLY [of the] HOLY …
… СЛАВНАГО ПРОРОКА IѠАННА ПРЕДТЕЧИ
… GLORIOUS PROPHET JOHN [the] FORERUNNER
“Image of the Assembly of the Holy, Glorious Prophet John the Forerunner.”
Now we have seen the word Sobor before, and you may recall that it means a gathering — an assembly — so in iconography it represents a composition using persons related in some way — as all part of the same story or event; a Sobor is also a gathering or assembly of persons relating in some way to the main Eastern Orthodox church festival celebrated on the previous day. The “church jargon” term generally used for such a secondary festival in English is synaxis, which is just the Greek word that Church Slavic translates as Sobor.
So this is the icon of the Sobor of John the Forerunner — the “Assembly of John the Forerunner” — which is the secondary festival following the major festival of the Bogoyavlenie — The Theophany — the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John. Now in some cases Sobor can also mean a main cathedral, as well as a council, as in the Nicene Council.
In the center of the icon, we see John depicted with wings as “Angel of the Wilderness”:
You can probably read his halo inscription, which says “Holy Prophet John the Forerunner.”
He holds a stylized diskos (Eucharistic vessel) in which the child Jesus lies as “Lamb of God” — the signifying the body of Jesus in the Eucharistic bread:
The little curving lines above the diskos represent 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.
John carries a scroll with the usual text for this type:
АЗЪ ВИДЕХЪ И СВИДЕТЕЛСТВО ВА ОНЕН СЕ АГНЕТЦЪ БОЖИЙ ВЗЕМ[ЛЯЙ ГРЕХИ МИРА]
AZ VIDEKH I SVIDETELSTVO VA ONEN CE AGNETS BOZHIY VZEM[LYAI 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] видѣ Иоáннъ Иисýса грядýща къ себѣ́ и глагóла: сé, áгнецъ Бóжiй, взéмляй грѣхи́ мíра:
Around John are scenes from his life. They begin with the image at lower left:
The inscription at left identifies it as:
Rozhestvo Svyatago Proroka Ioanna Predtechi
“Birth of the Holy Prophet John the Forerunner.
We see John’s mother Svyataya Pravednaya Elizaveta/Holy Righteous Elizabeth at left, the washing of the newborn John at right, and through the doorway we see the child being shown to his father Svyatuiy Prorok Zakhariy/Holy Prophet Zechariah, who holds a scroll reading Ioann da budet — “He shall be [called] John.”
The next scene chronologically is at upper right:
The identifying inscriptions says Angel” Gospoden’ vvede svyatago Ioanna Predtedi v pustuiniu tamo da prebuivaet” do vozrosta svoego — “The Angel of the Lord leads Holy John the Foreunner into the wilderness; there he shall remain until he comes of age.”
Now we move to upper left:
The identifying inscription is Molenie v pustuini Svyatago Proroka Ioanna Predotechi — “The prayer in the wilderness of the Holy Prophet John the Forerunner.”
Next, at left, comes John’s “Assembly” — his baptizing of people in the Jordan River:
The inscription says Sobor” Svyatago Proroka Ioanna Predotechi — “Assembly of the Holy Prophet John the Forerunner.”
Now we move to lower left:
The inscription reads Useknovenie glavui Svyatago Ioanna Predtechi –“The cutting off of the head of Holy John the Forerunner.” We see the execution and the presentation of the head to Salome on a salver.
Now we come to the final scene at middle right:
The inscription says Obretenie glavui Svyatago Ioanna Predtechi — “Finding of the head of Holy John the Forerunner.” Now in the apocryphal tale of John’s life — as separate from the New Testament accounts — there are three findings of the head of John — the thing just kept getting lost — and the one shown here appears to be the second finding. You can read more about these “lost and found” events in this previous posting:
At the very top center of the icon is the image of Gospod’ Savaof — “Lord Sabaoth” — God the Father, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove:
And finally, as we leave John in his wilderness, let’s take a close look at his pleasant face: