Our Advent readings are filled with stories of St. John the Baptist. (The Orthodox refer to him as St. John the Forerunner.) He is revered in both the Eastern and Western church as a person of great importance in our salvation history. Jesus Himself praised him. Needless to say, he is prominently featured in icons as well as in Scripture, in quite a variety of interesting ways. He is sometimes shown as serene and reverent, bowing towards Christ in humble and adoring prayer. This sort of depiction of St. John is part of a grouping of at least 3 icons called a Deisis (intercessions). Christ, enthroned, is in the center. Mary is on one side, John the Baptist on the other. Their hands gesture towards the Lord in prayer. Like the Mother of God, the Forerunner is a “bridge”: he, the last of the Old Testament, she, the first of the New. John in these icons is shown as transfigured by grace, beautiful to look upon and richly robed, worshipping the Lord.
He is also often shown in the wilderness, clothed in the skins of animals, thin and ascetic, with a stern face, hair and beard wild and unkempt. Often he holds a staff, a symbol of authority, and a scroll. In icons, the words on the scroll are a quote of the one depicted.
St. John in these icons is challenging the viewer, urging repentance, and showing us a way to holiness of fasting, prayer, and discipline.
In the 13th century Byzantium, icons of John with wings became widespread. He is still clothed as the prophet of the desert, the voice crying in the wilderness. The wings indicate that he is a messenger of God. Often he is being blessed by Christ, Who reaches out from heaven toward His servant.
In feastday icons such as the Baptism of Christ, he is of course an important figure as well.
Some of the most interesting icons show him holding or standing near a platter with his severed head upon it. These icons indicate the manner of his death, but in the non-linear expressiveness of iconography, do not express any sense of time, place, or sequence. It simply shows that this happened. There is no confusion with simultaneously showing St. John before and after his martyrdom.