History and Tradition Behind the Icon of John the Baptist

The hand-painted icon of John the Baptist (or John the Forerunner) could be traced to the art style of the late 18th — early 19th-century icon painters. It also belongs to the long tradition of icons depicting Saint John the Baptist, dating back to the 14th century.

Gospel of Luke (1:5 – 24) says that John the Forerunner was born to Zachariah and Elizabeth, an elderly childless couple. Zachariah was visited by the Archangel Gabriel who portended the birth of the future Saint.

John the Baptist is accepted as a prophet of God in several religions and is generally considered a saint by most Christian denominations. He famously baptized Jesus Christ in the waters of the Jordan river and is also referred to as a precursor of Jesus in the Bible.

Icon of John the Baptist: history and tradition

The antique hagiographical icon of John the Baptist is recounting the story of the Saint’s life, as well as the foretelling of his conception and the events that happened after his death. The 12 border scenes should be read left to right: starting with the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel to Zachariah and ending with the discovery of the head of John the Baptist after his execution. In the center of the icon, John the Baptist can be seen wearing a robe made of camel skin and a cape, with angel wings behind his back. This representation of the Saint fits into the iconographical tradition often referred to as the “Angel of the Desert.” “Conception of John the Baptist” — one of the border scenes — is not mentioned in the Gospel, but the first images depicting it date back to the 13th century.

The influence of the art tradition founded by the Old Believers — a movement within the Russian Orthodox Church — can be seen in the colors and the overall composition of the icon. At the same time, the plate covering the centerpiece is reminiscent of the Baroque style, with the rest of the icon appearing distinctly classicist with its symmetrical composition.

It is evident that this icon of John the Baptist has been repainted many times since the day of its creation. The disproportionate length of the border scenes points to the fact that the plate has been reused, and the current image has been painted over the previous one. The repurposing of the board is also indicated by abundant images of tall buildings and greenery in the upper and lower borders as if the icon painter was trying to fill in the empty space.