Saint John the Forerunner

Tamara Penwell's icon of Saint John the Forerunner

Also known as St John the Baptist. One of the most intriguing and enigmatic characters in the Bible and a fascinating subject to paint.

About St John the Forerunner there are more questions than answers. He is known as “The friend of the Bridegroom”, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness”, “the witness who bore testimony to the Light”, “[the one who] will have the spirit and power of Elijah”. The title “Forerunner” is also thought-provoking.

The theme that seems to have stirred artists’ imaginations most is St John’s beheading on the orders of king Herod Antipas to satisfy the demands of Salome for her dancing. The Church celebrates that event on August 29th each year.

Many of the above themes are represented in this icon. St John is represented with wings as “the angel of the desert”. Angels are messengers of God. John who lived in the wilderness of the desert prophesied about the coming of the Messiah. In the wilderness he announced the news of the approaching Kingdom. Like Elijah, John is shown wearing a hair shirt.

There are two heads of St John depicted, one in a dish the platter that Salome wished John’s head to be presented on. Scenes of martyrdom are never depicted as the main theme of an icon but only sometimes on the margin, among scenes from saints’ lives. In those scenes violence and mutilation would not be elaborated on, but is represented in a very restrained manner. In this icon we see life and death, side by side, signifying that what is represented is not the facts of a historical event but its eschatological significance.

St John is facing a small figure of Jesus, in the top right corner blessing John the Baptist. Here, John 3;29 comes to mind, of the Friend of the Bridegroom who listens to the Bridegroom’s voice.

In the bottom left corner there is a tree with an axe in it. This refers to Matt. 3;10 – “the axe is already laid at the root of the tree”. This is prophetic of Christ’s death on the Cross (the Tree). In this sense St John is the Forerunner of Christ, as his death preceded Christ’s. It could be said that John “took up the Cross of Christ” before Christ himself did.