Why Do Orthodox Icons Depict St. John the Baptist with Wings?

St. John the Baptist, also called St. John the Forerunner and “the last prophet of the Old Testament,” is one of the major religious figures, known for his baptizing of Jesus Christ. St. John the Baptist is honored as a saint in many Christian traditions, and he is also revered as a prophet in Islam, Mandaeism, and the Bahá’í Faith. However, in this blog post, we want to draw your attention to another interesting thing about this holy figure. Have you ever noticed that some Eastern Orthodox icons depict him with wings? Do you know why it is so? There are two possible answers to this question.

Orthodox icons of St. John the Baptist

Most Eastern Orthodox icons showing St. John the Baptist with wings belong to “The Angel of the Desert” iconography. This depiction is based on the Old Testament prophecy that heralded the coming of an angel (a messenger) who would prepare the way before Christ by preaching the doctrine of repentance. According to belief, the last great prophet before Jesus Christ came to earth was St. John the Baptist, so Orthodox icons depicting him with wings present the prophet as a divine messenger or an angel who has brought good news to the world. However, if this is the case, Orthodox Christian icons of saints should depict other prophets who are considered divine messengers with wings too. But they don’t.

There is one more explanation of the Orthodox icons showing St. John the Baptist with wings, and it lies in the Gospels. According to them, St. John’s life in the desert was “angelic.” It was full of chastity, abstinence, and prayer. He disregarded all material needs, proclaiming the coming of Jesus Christ, which made him a herald of God, just like the angels. Thus, St. John the Baptist’s “angelic” life in the desert and the message he brought to the world give a clear explanation why so many Eastern Orthodox icons show him with wings. Plus, this also explains the fact why this prophet is considered the patron saint of hermits.

There are many antique and modern religious icons of St. John the Baptist. However, if you are looking for something special for your home or collection, pay your attention to the Eastern Orthodox icons depicting this prophet as “The Angel of the Desert” with hagiographical border scenes. This iconographic type appeared in the 16th century, and it remains highly venerated today.

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