Praying with Icons: Part 10

With The Rev. Deacon Joe Dzugan


December 5th, 2021



John the Baptist


From before he was born, John the Baptist had been chosen to prepare the Israelites for the coming of the Messiah. In their old age, his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were told by the angel Gabriel that they would have a son “With the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). John the Baptist’s deeds as a prophet indicate the transition from the Old to the New Covenant. His austere way of life, as well as his chastising manner of teaching, are reminiscent of the prophet Elijah.

Elizabeth and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, were close relatives. In connection with a meeting that took place between these two women while they were pregnant (The Visitation), it is said that on hearing Mary’s greeting Elizabeth cried out, and: “the child leapt in her womb” (Luke 1:44). Even before he was born John reacted to the coming Savior whom he would later point to saying “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

The baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan marks the pinnacle of John the Baptist’s life. In Greek tradition, he has been given the title “Prodromos” meaning “Forerunner”, or directly translated “in advance.” He was also called the Angel of the Wilderness, which means the Messenger from the Wilderness. The Greek word “angelos” may be translated with “angel” or “messenger.” The wings John has in this icon are to underscore his role as messenger.

John the Baptist lived as an ascetic in the wilderness, clothed himself in camel hair, and ate locusts and wild honey. In this icon, he is portrayed according to convention and has a thin face, an intense gaze, and long shaggy hair and beard. Paradoxically, he holds his own head on a tray. Because he dared to reprimand King Herod for breaking his marriage vows, he was thrown into prison and later beheaded. This apparently inconsistent presentation shows that an icon treats not only space but also time as relative. John is depicted here in three different dimensions simultaneously. The icon records his earthly life, his martyrdom, and following a sojourn in the realm of the dead, and also his present status as a saint in heaven.

John urged the people to repent (in Greek “metanoia’) and baptized those who confessed their sins. The essence of his teaching is written on the scroll in his hand: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2).


Source: The Mystical Language of Icons.


Reflections on the Icon of John the Baptist


From “The One Who Points the Way”:


One of the most significant features of icons is the direction in which the eyes are drawn by gestures and lines. Thus, in the great Trinity icon of Andrei Rublev, the inclination of the heads and the (very muted) gestures of the hands tell us a great deal about what Rublev is saying – what he is “writing”, since Orthodox Christians speak of the “writing”, not the painting of an icon – about the relations of the divine persons. In that sense, all icons “show a way”: they invite us to follow a line, a kind of little journey, in the picture. It is not, of course, a peculiarity of icons: there are plenty of great Western images that require something similar, most powerfully, perhaps, the Isenheim altarpiece of Grunewald, with John the Baptist’s immensely elongated forefinger pointing towards the crucified. But in the icon, we are not talking about dramatic gestures that underline a point, but rather about the journey the eye has to take around the entire complex


image: wherever you start, you are guided by a flow of lines, and the path traveled itself makes the “point” – though “point” is quite the wrong word, suggesting as it does that the icon has one simple message to get across, rather than being an invitation to a continuing action of contemplating.



Rowan Williams, Ponder These Things, pp. 3-4.



Apart from the festal icon of the Theophany or Baptism of Christ, there are two icons of St. John common to Orthodox churches.

One is intended to be part of a group of three, with the Mother of God on the left, Christ in the center, and John on the right. John’s head, like Mary’s, is tilted meekly toward the Savior, while one or both hands are extended in a gesture of prayer or petition. In some versions of the icon, John’s right-hand holds the scroll with the text, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The three icons are placed in the center of the Deisis (or intercession) tier when it is included in an iconostasis.

In another icon type, we see John with wings, the angelic symbol meaning that John was a messenger “angelos” of God. The reference is to the words of Jesus, “This is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your ways before him” (Matthew 11:10). The wilderness that was John’s home is sometimes seen in the background. In one of his hands, or in the foreground of the icon, is a plate with John’s head, the price he paid for speaking the truth fearlessly before the rulers.



Jim Forest, Praying with Icons, pp. 122-123.


“Praying with Icons”, Deacon Joe Dzugan, St. Francis Episcopal Church, 2021.

Posted by Mark Hamby at 6:30 AM
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