Saint John is depicted half-length with his right hand at shoulder level, the tips of the thumb and fourth finger touching in an elegant, enigmatic gesture2. His left hand is at the waist and holds a scroll and a staff which extends to the top right corner of the icon. His vermilion red wings with gold striations fill the space on either side. He is silhouetted against a gold ground on which the scalloped outline of his nimbus has been inscribed with a punch. He wears a shaggy dark blue undergarment thought to be the fur mantle of Elijah, a reference to his appellation as a new Elijah (Matthew 11:44)3. The over-garment (himation) is dark green with schematised light reflexes. His uncompromisingly direct and frank gaze focuses on the onlooker. There are hints of emaciation in the body, and the hair seems wild and matted though this is understated. The image expresses a scarcely contained force and energy, but that impression is tempered by the beauty and richness of the colours and the contemplative stillness of his look. The scalloped halo adds a textural richness to the icon enhancing its tactile appeal.4
John is perhaps the best known of the many mysterious and enigmatic figures of the Christian story. We remember the dramatic events of his life up to and including his execution after Salome’s dance before Herod and her demand, on her mother’s orders, for John’s head; his mysterious sojourn ‘in the wilderness’; his role as the last of the prophets, as baptiser and forerunner of Christ after whose appearance he fades away completely. All this belongs to a mythology of great psychological force that has fascinated commentators throughout the ages down to Flaubert and Oscar Wilde in modern times.
Much of this is has been intuitively understood by the icon painter. He follows established forms laid down in the 14th and 15th centuries in the great schools of Constantinople and the Hesychast tradition of the monasteries.5 But his work is more than imitation or convention. It is enlivened by the energies elaborated by personal spiritual labour and the rigors of his training. The medieval monk and painter devoted himself to mental and physical disciplines that transformed him into a channel through which his innate gifts could express truth: not self-expression but service to the higher good.
The elements of the artistic tradition in which our painter worked can be seen in the small icon in the British Museum dated to circa 1300 (Fig. 1). The gesture and position of the right hand is similar, but the scroll in the left hand is closed and there is no staff and no hair shirt. Other examples from the 14th and 15th centuries suggest the insights of Hesychasm prevalent in the period. The ‘look’ is detached, severe, and at the same time intensely human and compassionate: a call from the awakened inner life. ‘John was the New Testament model of the Byzantine monk, his presence was a persuasive summons to monastic discipline.’6
The 14th century Macedonian or Serbian icon (Fig. 2) has the same combination as No. 13 in the left hand of the scroll and the martyr’s staff and, as in Figs. 3 and 4; the right hand is turned inwards over the solar plexus. In the opinion of this writer, the supreme example of the type is the icon (fig. 4.) discovered by the Temple Gallery in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul in 1970 and now in the Menil Collection, Houston7. As Carr points out, ‘This representation went on to have an extensive life in Russian iconography’8 as we observe in a Russian icon in Moscow (Fig. 3). Interestingly, this Russian example, displayed in the Parecclesion of the Annunciation Cathedral in the Kremlin, is dated to 1560, a clear indication that the tradition was still vibrant two hundred years after it’s origin. Our Saint John belongs to the same period.
None of the images cited above shows the Forerunner with wings. This feature was introduced in the Palaiologan era and is a clear reference to his status as an angel or messenger; the Greek word implies both meanings9. Here the wings, done in brilliant vermilion with gold striations, are particularly striking. This may imply some Cretan influence since we see the same detail in the wings of the Archangel Gabriel in a Cretan triptych in Athens10 (Fig. 5).
Our icon shares an unusual feature with, as far as I know, only three other icons, two associated with Andrei Rublev in Moscow (Figs. 6, 7), the third, the John the Baptist in Houston referred to above (Fig. 4). I refer to the undulation or ‘swelling’ seen below the ear on the neck the saint.
If the purpose of icons is to depict the heavenly world, the world of spiritual realities, it follows that the images of Christ and the saints cannot be naturalistic. The mysticism of the Desert Fathers and the Hesychasts led them to engage with a realm beyond time and not subject to the laws of three-dimensional space. Icons are painted in such a way that we do not confuse the realities of life on earth with the higher verities of eternal life. It is apparent, especially in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the period of greatest Hesychast influence in art, that bodies of the saints are intentionally distorted or ‘dematerialised’ and never naturalistic. The figures of warrior saints in the Chora Church for example, stand in strange balletic poses, their spindly legs bearing no weight onto the ground (Fig. 8).
There is an ancient tradition according to which extreme ascetic practice maintained over long periods produces physical changes in the practitioner. This is known in Asian art where there is the familiar protuberance (urna) on the forehead the Buddha and the cranial protuberance (ushnisha) rising from the top of the head are considered specific ‘signs’ of high spiritual attainment. What appears as distortion in the ordinary physical sense can have a quite different meaning at another level of comprehension.
Such art creates an atmosphere of mystery. We are invited to approach the unknown with a sense of wonder, like children. This is not a world that the literal mind (or the scientific or even academic mind) can easily enter and may explain why the West with its basis in materialistic culture has until recent times resisted icons. In any case the power of art, especially when exercised by a master, as here, can transcend all such considerations allowing the image and the knowledge it symbolises to speak directly to the heart and the soul.