Icons of St. John the Baptist

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.


About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
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5 Responses to Icons of St. John the Baptist

  1. Fascinating facts about this important man.

  2. Excellent and enjoyable post. Thanks for including the icon of St. John with wings. People rarely association him with wings, but you stated it well, by saying that he was a mystic messenger of God.

  3. Biltrix says:

    Another great post. I learn so much here… and now I’m reminded, I need to get started on that “red altar” I said I’d get done by Christmas. (First I need to get the right icons).

    At any rate, on a different topic, I’ll be giving a talk to a group of adults on Friday on the theme of Immaculate Conception and I had the thought of incorporating Icons (because I wanted to make it visual, spiritual, and prayerful). Any suggestions as to what icons of Mary would be best for that?

    • reinkat says:

      Thanks, Biltrix! I hope you share a photo of your “red corner” when it is ready. These things aren’t necessarily ever “finished”, but always a work in progress, (just like ourselves) 🙂
      Icons of Mary: of course, with icons being an Orthodox tradition, the Immaculate Conception isn’t an icon image, except as imagined in Western religious art. However, there are ancient icons of Mary that would work, including The Conception of the Virgin Mary, the Presentation of the Virgin Mary at the Temple (as a little girl), the Annunciation icons, and the Virgin of the Sign icons. I think Googling images of these titles will lead you to many good icons that can be part of your talk. I am not very familiar with the first couple (Conception of the Virgin and Presentation of the Virgin). The research into these images will be fascinating. Too bad I won’t be able to see and hear your talk!

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