BalkanMagazin :: Ivanjdan – Saint John the Forerunner in Orthodox iconography

In Paleo-Christian and Orthodox iconography, St. John is among the most depicted figures, because he has a special meaning in the theological system.
(Saint John the Baptist, Serbia, Gracanica, fresco, 13th century; Constantinople, Byzantium, icon, around 1300; Byzantium, icon, 14th century)

Saint John the Baptist has a special place in the Christian religion, because he represents the link between the Old and New Testaments. His mission was not limited to the role of prophet and preacher, but became much more complex because of his anticipation and proclamation of Christ’s coming.

Birth of Saint John the Baptist, Novgorod, Russia, icon, around 1500

The last Old Testament prophet

The time in which St. John lived was certainly the most difficult period that the Hebrew people encountered, because the country was entering an agony that would end in 135 with the fall of Jerusalem. At that time, Israel was a theocratic state in which power belonged to a small circle of Pharisee and Sadducee priests. Religion was kept in elitist rigidity, and its rules were imposed on the faithful through various pressures.

Dealing with such clerical demands meant mechanically performing external formalities, without noticing the meaning and goal that was to be achieved. Moreover, to make it easier to rule, the Pharisees tacitly supported the penetration of Western and Persian Gnostic ideas that spoke of heaven, hell, the immortality of the soul, and divine providence. These movements did not touch the religious formalism that was the basis of the theocratic administration, but they strengthened the messianic idea already present among the Hebrew prophets from the time after the schism of the year 931 AD.

The appearance of Saint John the Baptist, at that very moment, was decisive. It seemed that he was the only prophet determined to preach and criticize a decadent society. Thus he rose up against the tetrarch Herod Antipas himself, who entered into an incestuous marriage. However, John also preached the coming of the Messiah, a strict disciple of justice, in the eschatological sense (Matt. 3: 10-12), rather than Christ who would heal the sick in peace and bring relief to the afflicted (Matt. 11: 2- 5).

Apparently, St. John had many peculiarities of the Nazarene prophets (nazar – to separate, Hebrew) in his way of preaching as well as in his appearance. Nazareth was the consecration of a person vowed to God, either temporarily or for life, which was the case of Samson, Samuel and John. This consecration was expressed in different ways: that a person would not be defiled in contact with any corpse, that he would refrain from the fruit of the vine, from vinegar, from alcohol, that he would allow his hair to grow freely, that he would avoid contact with other divine forces, etc.

St. John preached and supported the Nazarene doctrine, calling on the Jews to strive for spiritual perfection, justice for others, fidelity to God and to repent of their sins. In fact, everything he counseled to the Jews, as the Forerunner, was preached by Jesus Christ when he revealed his earthly mission.


Saint John the Forerunner with Lives, Crete, Greece, 16th century

Saint John – desert angel

In Paleo-Christian and Orthodox iconography, Saint John is among the most portrayed characters, because he has a special meaning in the theological system. Not only was he a prophet and a preacher, but he also announced the coming of Christ, and then baptized him in the Jordan. His mission in the Judean desert and Jerusalem was understood as the preparation of the people for the coming of the Lord (Matt. 3: 1-12), and that is why it was called Prodromos (Forerunner, Greek). His attribute “desert angel” is also connected with his mission, which is confirmed by the words of the prophets Isaiah (Isa. 40: 3) and Malachi (Mal. 3: 1), which speak of the voice of an angel in the desert preparing the way for the Lord.

In iconography, he is often depicted in the desert dressed in camel hair robes, girded with a leather belt (Matt. 3: 4), with outstretched wings, holding an open scroll and butter in his hands. The depiction of Saint John with wings refers to Malachi’s words and was painted, for the first time, in 1296 in the Aryan church of Saint Achilles. However, this element became more popular only in the 16th century, in Greece, Russia and Slavic countries.

The chalice in his hand signifies the Eucharist, the symbol of the sacrifice of the Lord in which the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ are found. It is a sacred mystery established by Christ himself during his last Passover supper (Matt. 26: 26-29) and which represents God’s new covenant with his people. The first covenant between God and the people of Israel was sealed by Moses with the blood of sacrificial calves (Exodus 24: 3-8), while the new covenant was sealed with the blood of Christ, sacrifices offered for the salvation of men (Heb. 9: 11-22).


Saint John the Forerunner – Desert Angel, Russia, icon, 17th century, 18th century silver bet


The developed scroll in John’s hand bears various inscriptions, recalling the advice he gave to the people of Israel or emphasizing the divine nature and sacrifice of Christ. Usually there are eschatological words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3: 2) and “Even the ax stands at the root of the tree” (Matt. 3:10).

The Holy Eucharistic Sacrifice is indicated by the inscription: “Behold, the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).

Next to the feet of St. John is a tree and an ax, symbolizing a tree to be cut down and thrown into the fire, which refers to Christ’s parable of the barren fig tree (Luke 13: 6-9) and of good and bad trees (Matt. 7:17). -20).


Beheading of St. John the Baptist, Russia, icon, circa 1500

Often, this depiction of St. John the Baptist is surrounded by scenes from his life from birth to the beheading by order of Herod Antipas. The scene of the beheading is sometimes presented in several phases: Herod’s birthday celebration, Salome’s dance, the Beheading and Salome brings the head of St. John to his mother. Sometimes we also find an episode with three miraculous appearances of John’s head. The forerunner is also found in the compositions of Deisis, the Last Judgment, the Epiphany, the Descent into Hell, the Shroud …

The significance of Saint John the Baptist in the Orthodox Church comes, no doubt, from his role as the last prophet and the first saint – “the greatest among those born of women” as Christ said, describing the Forerunner (Matthew 11:11). That championship gave him a very special place in the Orthodox liturgy, where he is, after the Mother of God, most respected. Thus, even the Beheading of Saint John became one of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church, which is an honor that only the prophet Elijah enjoys next to him.

Source: Balkan Magazin – Aktuelnosti by

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