John the Baptist is the last Old Testament prophet who introduced Jesus Christ as the Savior to the people of Israel. His other name – John the Forerunner – is meant to emphasize his specific role as forerunner or precursor of Jesus Christ. The narratives of his life and ministry are contained in a number of sources – in the four canonic gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, Flavius Josephus and early Christian apocripha.
The first Christian images of John the Baptist appeared in the early Christian art, in the compositions of the Baptism of Christ; the earliest of surviving images of John the Baptist is located in the Catacombs of San Callista (the first half of the 3rd century AD). John the Baptist was depicted as a middle-aged man with long wavy hair and a beard, in a haircloth, putting his right hand on Jesus Christ’s head and holding a scroll (or a staff crowned with a cross) with his left hand. This is how John the Baptist is represented on the so-called Arles sarcophagus (4th century AD, Musée de l'Arles Antique) and on the mosaics of the Arian Baptistry in Ravenna (the mid-5th century) and others.
The exceptional veneration of John the Baptist in the Christian countries affected the development of comprehensive and diverse iconography of the saint. The mid-Byzantine images of John the Baptist emphasized the saint’s ascetic life. He was usually depicted without a chiton, wearing only haircloth hoisted over the shoulder hardly covering his exhausted body. With his right hand John the Baptist blessed himself with the sign of the cross, with his left hand he held a staff crowned with the blossoming cross. One of the earliest images of John the Baptist is the icon of John the Baptist in the desert, in the Church of the Annunciation at Miachin (1189) near Novgorod, John the Baptist in the desert, with three scenes from his life (the late 12th century, the St. Catherine Monastery on Sinai). The reason why this iconography was so widespread possibly lies in the veneration of John the Baptist as the forefather of the Christian ascetism. In the 14th – 15th centuries a shoulder-length iconographic variant of this icon was created such as the icon of John the Baptist from the Pantocrator Monastery on Athos (the third quarter of the 14th century). This particular kind of icon was widespread during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. The wide circulation of John the Baptist icons in the 1560/1570s is owed to the Tsar’s donations to large churches and monasteries – the icons were passed to the Annunciation Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin (1560-е годы, State Museum of the Moscow Kremlin), the Church of the Elevation of the Cross of the Tolga Monastery (ca 1571, the Yaroslavl Art Museum), the St. Nicholas of Ugresh Monastery (1560s – 1570s, the Kolomenskoye State Museum), the Assumption Cathederal in Ryazan (the Ryazan Art Museum).
The feast day of John the Baptist is celebrated several times and is associated with different episodes from his life and veneration. July 7th (June 24th , the old style) – the Nativity of John the Baptist; September 11 (August 29th, the old style) – the Beheading of John the Baptist; October 6 (September 23rd, the old style) – the Conception of John the Baptist; January 20th (January 7th, the old style) – the Synaxis of John the Baptist; March 9th (February 24th, the old style) and June 7th (May 25th, the old style) – the Finding of John the Baptist’s Head.
Zhanna G. Belik,
Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.
Olga E. Savchenko,
research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.
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