Here is an icon of John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) in the form commonly known as “Angel of the Wilderness/Desert.”

(Courtesy of Maryhill Museum)

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:


IMAGE [of the] ASSEMBLY [of the] HOLY …



“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:



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:


Part of the fun of icons is in trying to translate some of the roughly or oddly written inscriptions.

Here, for example, is a Greek-inscribed icon you will recognize as John the Forerunner — John the Baptist.  Greek icons of John often have a “wild and wooly” appearance, almost like a combination of primitive art and more abstract art:

(Courtesy of

But it is his scroll that interests us today:

The texts used on John’s scroll in icons are usually quite limited, so one might guess at what it says, but it is best to be able to read it, though some of the spelling is phonetic rather than standard.  Also, it is a little worn, but nonetheless we can make out what was intended.  Here is what it looks like:








Well, with a little imagination, we can tell that the painter’s intention was a standard inscription:

Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.
Metanoeite, engiken gar he basileia ton ouranon
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is drawn near.”

The painter did some (for us) odd things, for example using OI where we would expect I or H in Greek, but that is easily explained — all three have the same  “ee” sound in later Greek, so again, he was just writing phonetically.

The title inscription is a bit odd in its arrangement.  We see it in the upper left-hand corner:

It is meant to be read from lower left to upper left to upper right.

At lower left we have


The bottom letter above is not quite clear in the inscription, but nonetheless we can easily see that the inscription is to be understood as  Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC — Ho Hagios — “The Holy…”

The name Ιωάννης/Ioannes/John at top left is abbreviated to only two letters — Ιω.

When we get to his title at upper right, we see the beginning Ὁ/Ho/”The” followed by a very elaborate ligature intended to represent — when joined to the ΟC/os ending, the word Πρόδρομος/Prodromos/ “Forerunner.”

So we see that the title intended by the abbreviations and fancy ligature is Ὁ Άγιος Ιωάννης ο ΠρόδρομοςHO HAGIOS IOANNES HO PRODROMOS — “THE HOLY JOHN THE FORERUNNER.”

From earlier postings here on John, you will already know why he is shown with wings.  If you don’t remember, or if you are new here, you will find the answer in this posting:



By now, I hope readers have discovered that if this site is read from the first postings onward, it provides a useful course in identifying icons and reading their inscriptions.  Being able to read inscriptions is a very important part of the study of icons, and it is not difficult.

Today we will look at another icon of Ioann Predtecha —  Иоанн Предтеча — John the Forerunner — commonly called John the Baptist in the West.

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton MA)

This type is commonly known by the title inscription we see at the top.  We will take it in two parts:



So it reads, all together,


You may remember from previous lessons that the Church Slavic СОБОРЬ — Sobor — means “council,” “assembly” “gathering” and it is even the word used for a cathedral.  Here it is appropriate to translate it as “assembly.”  In Orthodox Church calendrical usage, a sobor (Greek synaxis) was originally (in Constantinople) an assembly for liturgical purposes at a church, in honor of a saint or saints involved in a particular event (often a day after an event celebrated as one of the major feasts)  These calendar celebrations were later generally adopted in Orthodoxy.  So we find, for example, the Sobor of John the Forerunner celebrated on January 7th, the day after the Feast of the Bogoyavlenie — the Theophany (the baptism of Jesus).

So this icon is the “Assembly” of John the Forerunner, and it depicts visually the account we find in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark:

Бы́сть Иоáн­нъ крестя́й въ пусты́ни и проповѣ́дая крещéнiе покая́нiя во от­пущéнiе грѣхóвъ.
Buist Ioann krestyay v pustuini i propovyedaya kreshchenie pokayaniya vo otpushchenie gryekhov.
“John was baptizing in the wilderness and preaching baptism of repentance in remission of sins.”

And in this next detail, we find illustrated these words:

И исхождá­ше къ немý вся́ Иудéйская странá и Иерусали́мляне…
I iskhozhdashe k nemu vsya Iudeyskaya strana i Ierusalimlyane…
“And there went out to him all the country of Judea and the Jerusalemites…”

We see the people of Jerusalem coming out of their city, on their way to John.

And in this detail we see illustrated these words:

и крещáхуся вси́ во Иордáнѣ рѣцѣ́ от­ негó, исповѣ́да­ю­ще грѣхи́ своя́.
i kreshchakhusya vsi vo Iordanye ryetsye ot nego, ispovyedaiushche gryekhi svoya.
“…and were all baptized in the Jordan River by him, confessing their sins.”

Here we see the people removing their clothes on the banks of the Jordan, in preparation for baptism:

Here John is described:

Бѣ́ же Иоáн­нъ оболчéнъ власы́ велблýжди, и пóясъ усмéнъ о чреслѣ́хъ егó….
Bye zhe Ioann obolchen vlasui velbluzhdi, i poyas usmen o chreslyekh ego….
“John was clothed in camel hair, and a leather belt around his waist….”

It is interesting to note that among the beasts surrounding John, we find a lion, a donkey, a camel, and even a unicorn.  Because the word used to describe John’s desert in the new testament means “wilderness,” (a wild, deserted place) Russian painters — who did not know what the Judean desert was like — just painted a kind of forest instead.  That is typical of this type in Russian iconography.

John is looking upward toward Lord Sabaoth in the sky, who is blessing him with the fingers of the blessing hand in the position used by the Old Believers, so that just confirms what we already suspect from the style of the painting — that this is an Old Believer icon.  We can see Lord Sabaoth’s inscription just above him:

Господъ саваофъ
Gospod savaof
“Lord Sabaoth.”

It is interesting to note how the landscape is painted.  As I have mentioned before, the Old Believers — while keeping the abstraction of “human” figures, nonetheless borrowed techniques for painting landscapes from the more realistic art of Western Europe.  The foliage of the trees and bushes consists of progressively lighter leaves superimposed on a darker background, a technique also used in the landscapes of Western Europe.The water is composed of background washes of shades of blue, with horizontal strokes of dark to light superimposed upon it.

From all of the characteristics of this icon — including the strong use of bright gold with a bright red inscription upon it, as well as the abstract manner of painting the human figures, combined with the somewhat “westernized” landscape, and the Old Believer blessing sign of “Lord Sabaoth,” we can reasonably assume that this attractive icon is from one of the number of Old Believer icon workshops once found in various cities and towns of the Urals.  Today the icons then produced in those Ural workshops are generally known under the blanket term “Nevyansk School” (Невьянская школа — Nevyanskaya shkola ), after the city of Nevyansk (Невьянск), the largest center of the Old Belief in the Urals — though Nevyansk icons were painted in a number of places in the region (such as Nizhniy Tagil/Нижний Тагил, Staraya Utka/Старая Утка, Krasnoufimsk/Красноуфимск).  Large numbers of Old Believers from parts of Poland, northern Russia and the Volga settled in the important mining region in the early 18th century, bringing with them influences from various schools of icon painting.  The “Nevyansk School” of icon painting that developed out of this was largely active from the second half of the 18th through the first half of the 19th century (though there are earlier examples), and benefited from the patronage of those involved in the rich Ural mines.  But with the economic downturn in the Urals and other changes, the school went into a decline in the second half of the 19th century.

Sverdlovsk Oblast (Province), Russia

In the map below, the large black dot in the circle at lower right is the city of Sverdlovsk.  Going northward, we see Nevyansk, and some distance above it, Nizhniy Tagil.  Krasnoufimsk is at lower left.


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:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

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:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

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.




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:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

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:

εῖτε, ἤγγι
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.