The Iconography of John the Baptist

After sharing some about the iconography of the Harrowing of Hell many of you encouraged me to share, as I make discoveries, a bit about other Greek Orthodox icons.

The iconography of John the Baptist has some interesting features.

First, as can be seen in the first two examples, as a sign of his martyrdom, John's severed head is often portrayed. Generally on a platter. In the first icon the head in on the ground at the bottom left. In the second icon John is holding his head.

John is also often depicted holding some text which generally gives the content of one or both of his more famous prophetic declarations:

"Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!"

"Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!"

In many icons you also see a tree with an ax at its base. In the first icon (16th Century) you can just see the ax and tree just behind John's left leg. The ax and tree are more clear in the second icon which is modern. But you have to look close for the ax as it blends in with the rock behind. The Ax and Tree are also echos of John's message:

Matthew 3:9-11
And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Another common feature in the iconography of John is that he is often painted with angel wings. This visually connects John with the messenger ("angel") in the prophecy of Malachi 3:1:

"See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty.

Like all Orthodox icons what you see in these icons of John is a visual halo of meaning, where images (wings, ax, tree, severed head, text) all echo the biblical stories associated with John. It's a visual bible framed by theological reflection.

Finally, and interestingly in my opinion, in some icons of John we don't see his severed head but an overtone of Eucharist. Specifically, we see John holding a chalice and in the chalice is a small, naked Christ, the Lamb of God whose body we share in the meal. This can be see in this close-up image I've scanned in for you:

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2 thoughts on “The Iconography of John the Baptist”

  1. Hi.

    John, the Baptist was the High Priest of Adam or Prophet Elijah who came as an Angel to prepare the way, make people sons of Abraham and teach them the Moral Laws according to Matt.13.52, so that Christ Jesus, the Anointed High Royal Priest of God could Preach them into the sons of Most High God or make them Sons of God. For details, visit my website or go to my Youtube channel nijjhar1. I have over 2350 Videos.

  2. Hi Brethren,

    Now, there are over 4200 Youtube Videos.

    Here is a T-shirt design in honour of John, the Baptist.

    Gospel is as easy as ABC but received through grace.

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