John the baptist symbols: Recognising saints: lamb | Saints

Icons of John the Baptist, John the Forerunner

Icon of John the Baptist in the Greek Style

The memory of the righteous is celebrated with hymns of praise,
but the Lord’s testimony is sufficient for you, O Forerunner.
You were shown in truth to be the most honorable of the prophets,
for you were deemed worthy to baptize in the streams of the Jordan Him whom they foretold.
Therefore, having suffered for the truth with joy,
you proclaimed to those in hell God who appeared in the flesh,
who takes away the sin of the world, and grants us great mercy.

August 29 is the day which commemorates the Beheading of the Holy Glorious Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John. We know John as a prophet – the greatest and last prophet of the “Old Testament”, who specifically announced the coming of the Messiah, Who was Jesus. We also know how he preached in the wilderness, baptized Jesus Christ, and finally was beheaded on the orders of Herod for censuring the King.

The Icon shown above encompasses all of this teaching and tradition in one image. It is an English or North American Icon painted in a style that arose in the 15th and 16th centuries in Greek-speaking countries. It is also found in some Balkan countries too (Bulgarian, Serbian, Macedonian), though this is probably due to the influence of the old Byzantine Empire upon these areas. What sets this icon apart, and is probably the most striking part of the Icon, is the wings given to the figure of John the Baptist. The presence of the wings is to symbolize nothing more or less than John’s status as a divine messenger (in Greek “Evangelos”, from where the word “Angel” is derived). Aesthetic Saints are often described as living the radically non-worldly “angelic life”, and so the wings are recognizing John as the archetype of this desert living.

Other than the wings, John is depicted in the same way as he is in most icons: in the desert, wearing animal skins, with unkempt beard and long hair (compare the icon of St. Andrew the Apostle, who was a disciple of John). The axe laying at the foot of a tree is an obvious reference to John’s own prophetic warning recorded in Scripture:

And even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

To the bottom right of the picture, is John’s head on a platter, just as it was presented to Herod’s step-daughter, according to the Gospel of Matthew. It is because of this that John also holds a cross – the cross of martyrdom – and is turned to Christ in supplication, holding a scroll bearing the words:

Seest Thou what suffer those who censure, O Word of God, the faults of the unclean. Not being able to bear censure, Lo Herod cut off my head, O Saviour.

Over St. John’s camel-skin clothing is invariably a green robe, which symbolizes “earthliness”, and in this case it is because John grew up outside, in the wilderness. Later saints who also took up the Christian struggle in the wilderness can also be depicted in green for the same reason, and are sometimes known as “Green Martyrs”. That is to say they are martyrs (literally meaning witness) to the Faith, not by the shedding of blood, but by their ascetic struggle. Of course, St John is a both a green martyr and a martyr who shed his blood, hence the presence of the green robe and the cross.

John the Baptist preaching in hell

What else do we know of this glorious prophet and forerunner of Christ? Tradition, hymnography (see the hymn at the top of this post), and iconography all tell us that not only was John the forerunner of Christ on earth, but also in Hades. Before Jesus’ crucifixion, death, burial, and descent into Hades, John too descended there to preach the Gospel of Repentance and coming of the Messiah to the imprisoned souls. Therefore Icons of this dispensation of God exist too in order to instruct and inspire the faithful to reverence of John. As the hymns sung on August the 29th proclaim: The glorious beheading of the Forerunner, became an act of divine dispensation, for he preached to those in hell the coming of the Savior. Let Herodias lament, for she entreated lawless murder, loving not the law of God, nor eternal life, but that which is false and temporal.

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Why does John the Baptist have wings in Orthodox icons?

St John the Baptist, Angel of the Desert (17th Century, Russian)

August 29th is the day that commemorates the Beheading of John the Baptist. Why is this Saint, almost uniquely, shown in many icons with wings?

As well as “the Baptist”, John is also known as “glorious prophet and forerunner of Christ”. Therefore, the presence of the wings is to symbolize John’s status as a divine messenger (in Greek “Evangelos”, from where the word “Angel” is derived). It’s worth noting that the wings of the archangels (Gabriel, Michael etc.) in icons are largely symbolic too, as they are not specifically described as having wings in the Scriptures (see: The Divinely revealed appearance of angels in icons).

But if that were all, then why aren’t the prophets of the Old Testament, or the Apostles, shown with the angelic wings of divine messenger? The answer, in the words of Jesus Christ Himself, is because “among those born of women there is no one greater than John;” moreover, he is “the culmination and the crown of the prophets”, as the hymn from the feast of John’s nativity proclaims. Therefore, St John is an especial example among the Saints of an earthly “angel” and a heavenly man. As such, he is also described as the “Angel of the Desert” in the inscriptions of icons.

The life John led in the desert was angelic for two reasons. On the one hand he proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, becoming a herald of God like the angels. On the other, he lived a life of chastity, abstinence, and prayer, not being mindful of material needs, but with his attention fixed firmly to heaven. This is the life of the angels, and why the monastic way of life is sometimes called “angelic”, as well as why St John is the patron of monastics, hermits, and ascetics. For both reasons, it is appropriate to show St John with the spiritual wings of a dove.

She that once was barren now brings forth Christ’s Forerunner, John, the culmination and the crown of all the Prophets. For when he, in River Jordan, laid his hand on Him Whom the Prophets preached aforetime, he was revealed as God the Word’s fore-chosen Prophet, His mighty preacher, and His Forerunner in grace.
(Kontakion from the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist)


John the Baptist | John the Forerunner – general article on icons of John the Baptist.

The life of St John the Baptist in iconography

Article on John the Baptist’s Nativity – from Orthodox England, which contains the following excellent passage on St john’s wings:

“…the Baptist John, thus came to be called ‘the Forerunner of Christ’, a star compared to Christ, the Sun of Righteousness. Our Lord Himself called him the greatest born of women. Thus in the Church he has become the particular patron of monks and is called an earthly angel and a heavenly man. This is why in icons which portray him, he is shown as having wings. These are not of course physical wings, they are the spiritual wings of the dove, of one who prays unceasingly, which is the task of all, but especially of those in the monastic life.
The Holy Baptist stands at the very end of the Old Testament, but also at the very beginning of the New Testament. That is why he appears at the beginning of the Gospels. He opens up a new way and answers in a new way the old question which people have posed from ancient times and which I gave at the beginning of this sermon: ‘What is the purpose of life?’ John the Baptist who never married, who remained a virgin, who prophesied, tells us that the purpose of life is to be spiritually fruitful.

This is his prophetic revelation to us. Whether we are called to marriage and having children or not, we are called to bring forth spiritual fruit, to improve the world and not to worsen it, to be fruitful, and not to be barren, as his parents had been.”


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John the Baptist — a symbol of truth and a prototype of monastic asceticism

/ Vera Fedorova


September 11 is a great church holiday. At 8:30 a.m., the Divine Liturgy will be served in the Church of St. Elizabeth in honor of the Beheading of the Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord John.

John the Baptist is one of the most revered saints by Christians. The holidays associated with it (the Nativity of John the Baptist, the Beheading of John the Baptist) are great.

Prayer addressed to this saint helps to see one’s sinful nature and come to repentance, become purer in soul and closer to God. That is why the monks consider him their patron. The life and deeds of John became a type of monasticism.

Left an orphan, from a very young age he lived alone in the desert and spent most of his days there, eating only the meager food and dressing in rags. Only at the age of 30 did he go out to the people, in the Jordan Valley, with a sermon on repentance, which made him the greatest prophet and forerunner of Christ. As a prophet, he predicted the imminent Coming of the Messiah, as a Forerunner, he prepared it.

Only hearts that fully comprehended their impurity and sinfulness could open themselves to goodness and the Divine light that the Savior would bring with him. And John the Baptist mercilessly denounced vices, vain human thoughts — everything that prevents us from seeing the true value of being. He urged to leave anger and greed. “Repent,” he urged, “for the Kingdom of God is drawing near!”

John was a relative of the Savior, since the mother of the Baptist, the righteous Elizabeth, came from the family of David, like the Mother of God, and was only six months older than Him. The Savior considered him the greatest of men and his friend.

Icon «John the Baptist — Angel of the Desert». Procopius Chirin, 1620s Photo: Wikipedia

On icons, John the Baptist is often depicted as an angel of the desert, dressed in coarse camel hair, with wings behind his back. And his face even looks a bit like the face of Christ.

The death of John, which followed shortly after the Baptism of Jesus and shortly before His entry into public service, made the Baptist the first martyr of the New Testament.

The Prophet was very popular among the people, they believed him and followed him. And even the tetrarch (supreme ruler) could not ignore the truth that John spoke. At that time, Galilee was ruled by Herod Antipas, who was known for his sinful lifestyle. He married his brother’s wife Herodias, and this was considered the greatest crime against the Law of Moses, a violation of the seventh commandment. And the Forerunner spoke about it.

John the Baptist denounces Herod Antipas. Painting by Masolino da Panicale, 1435. Photo: Wikipedia

Herodias, who hated the prophet, achieved his arrest, and then, by cunning, and execution. Herod did not want to take the life of John, fearing the wrath of the people. However, Herodias sent her daughter Salome, who danced beautifully, to the royal feast. Enchanted by the dance of the girl, Herod promised to fulfill her every desire. And then Salome, persuaded by her mother, demanded the head of John the Baptist as a reward.

«Revenge of Herodias». Painting by Juan Flandes. Photo: Wikipedia

The severed head was brought into the banquet hall. According to legend, even then the mouth of the prophet continued to speak the truth, exposing Herod and Herodias.

According to Christian tradition, the day when a martyr stands before God is perceived simultaneously with great joy and great sadness. Believers celebrate the Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist with the strictest one-day fast, honoring the memory of the great hermit and ascetic, who became a model of monastic work.

During the service, the clergy put on red vestments, symbolizing the blood shed by the martyr and his feat.

«The Appearance of Christ to the People». Painting by A. A. Ivanov. Photo: Wikipedia

In 2011–2014, the unique church in honor of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist in the village of Khirino, Shatkovsky District, Nizhny Novgorod Region, was completely restored at the expense of Igor Ashurbeyli, , the patron of the Church of St. Elizabeth in Pokrovsky-Streshnevo .

The temple was erected approximately in 1758-1777. According to one version, his project was created by the famous architect Vasily Bazhenov. On September 11, the parishioners of the church in the village of Khirino will celebrate the patronal feast.


John the Baptist feast Beheading of John the Baptist

Why is John the Baptist depicted on the icon with two heads? – Orthodox magazine “Foma”

Approximate reading time: 5 min.



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John the Baptist is often depicted with wings behind his back and with his own severed head in his hands. What does this image mean? What kind of event is the beheading of John the Baptist? Tells Timothy Katnis , historian and director of the Pilgrimage Center of the Apostle Thomas in Europe.

King Herod Antipas, convicted by John of a sinful deed, put him in prison. Once, during a feast, Herod, wanting to please his stepdaughter, promised to fulfill her every desire. She, after consulting with her mother, demanded that the head of the prophet John be brought to her immediately on a platter.

Three evangelists — Matthew, Mark and Luke — told about this episode in almost the same way. For example, let us turn to the story of the Apostle Mark:

Herod sent and took John and put him in prison for Herodias, the wife of Philip, his brother, because he married her. For John said to Herod, You must not have your brother’s wife. Herodias, angry at him, wanted to kill him; but couldn’t. For Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and took care of him; did many things in obedience to him, and listened to him with pleasure. A convenient day came when Herod, on the occasion of days of his birth, he made a feast for his nobles, the commanders of thousands and the elders of Galilee, — the daughter of Herodias entered, danced and pleased Herod and those reclining with him; the king said to the girl: ask me what you want, and I will give it to you; and swore to her: whatever you ask of me, I will give you, even up to half of my kingdom. She went out and asked her mother: what to ask? She answered: the heads of John the Baptist. And she immediately went with haste to the king and asked, saying: I want you to give me now on a platter the head of John the Baptist. The king was saddened, but for the sake of the oath and those reclining with him, he did not want to refuse her. And immediately, sending a squire, the king commanded that his head be brought. He went and cut off his head in prison, and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the maiden, and the maiden gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb (Mk 6 :17–29).

Where does a mortal man have wings on an icon?

This widespread image of John the Baptist was called the «Angel of the Desert».

The wings behind the back of John the Baptist are a symbol of his life equal to the angels. From the Gospel we know that John lived in a desert place, dressed in camel skins and ate locusts. According to one interpretation, locusts are the fruits of a carob tree; according to another, an edible variety of locust. — Approx. ed. and wild honey. Reading these lines, we imagine a very severe, in fact, monastic life, which was led by the hermit and ascetic John the Baptist. No wonder the Church considers him the spiritual patron and forerunner of all monastics. It is no coincidence that the icon we are talking about depicts a desert and a mountain, and in the hands of the Forerunner is a charter. This is how papyrus sheets were called in ancient times. — Approx. ed. with the inscription: Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (Mt 3 :2).

Saint John the Baptist Angel of the Desert, c. 1700

And the biblical basis of the angelic icon-painting image of John the Baptist is a well-known passage from the book of the prophet Malachi: Behold, I am sending My Angel, and he will prepare the way before Me, and suddenly the Lord will come to His temple (Mal 3 :1) . Christ Himself directly connected this prophecy with John the Baptist (Mt 11 :10 and Luke 7 :27).

In the troparion, which is usually read by the reverend, there are the following words: «A desert dweller and an angel in the body.» That is, a monk, a reverend is both an angel and a man; such is the ancient church understanding of the essence of monasticism. It is this similarity with the angelic way of life that is reflected in the icon.

What is the amazing theological idea behind the image of the «Angel in the Wilderness»?

The «Angel in the Desert» image appears around the 13th century and becomes especially common in the 14th century. In Russia, it was written, for example, by Theophanes the Greek. Just at that time, the theological teaching of hesychasm (from the Greek ἡσυχία — silence, silence) was taking shape, speaking of the possibility of transfiguration, deification of a person. St. Gregory Palamas finally formulated the idea, expressed back in the 7th century by Maximus the Confessor, that a person is able to enter into direct communication with God through His uncreated energies, is able to see the Light of Tabor.

Sometimes the second head is depicted at the feet of the saint. John the Baptist, Byzantium, mid-15th century

And according to the words of St. Justin (Popovich), who lived quite recently, in the 20th century, the whole gospel of the Old Testament consisted in the fact that man is an icon of God, created in the image and likeness of God (cf.: Gen. 1 :26, 27). The gospel of the New Testament sets a new, much higher ideal of the God-man. After the incarnation of Christ, the task of a person is not just to keep the image and likeness of God in himself, but to reveal them to the end, follow Christ and become a God-man. As Saints Athanasius the Great and Irenaeus of Lyon wrote even earlier, God became man in order for man to become God.

The image of John the Baptist, an ascetic and a hermit, is the best way to express this idea.

So why is John the Baptist depicted with a severed head in his hands, despite the fact that he has a living head on his shoulders?

Any icon shows us a transformed face. Its task is not to reflect the historical event as detailed and accurate as possible, but to capture it in eternity. And on this icon we see John the Baptist already transformed: he was executed, but he was also resurrected. He seems to anticipate the resurrection of the dead.

The head that John holds in his hands symbolizes, firstly, the sacrifice for Christ, which he offered as a martyr.

But there is also an important «second».

John the Baptist. Cretan icon painting school. Around 1600

Everywhere, in all the iconographic images of John the Baptist, his ministry is emphasized precisely as Forerunner of Christ, that is, the one who precedes the Lord, paves the way for Him. This role of his is well expressed in the Forerunner’s own words about Christ: I am followed by a Man who has stood in front of me, because He was before me (Jn 1 :30).

The Forerunner precedes the Lord in everything: he comes to the banks of the Jordan with a sermon, anticipating the sermon of Christ; he becomes the first martyr for Christ; after death, he descends into hell to announce to the souls languishing there about the imminent descent into hell of Christ and their liberation.

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