June 24, Midsummer’s Day, that is, the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist. The feast falls in the period of the summer solstice, and in the Western church it precedes by exactly a year the birth of John’s younger cousin, Jesus, placed on the day of the winter solstice. This coincidence, and the increase and decline of the length of daylight which begins on these dates, nicely illustrates the saying of St. John the Baptist: He must increase, and I must decrease (Jn 3:30). The metaphor has been abundantly exploited by preachers for two thousand years.
During our Eastern journeys in recent months, we encountered several representations of St. John the Baptist with an iconography which is fairly unusual for the Western viewer. This feast is a good opportunity to present them.
That St. John carries his own head in his hand, while he looks at us with his other head on his neck, as in this Georgian icon, inevitably reminds us of the medieval catalog of monastic relics, quoted by István Ráth-Végh and later by Umberto Eco, which included, inter alia, the childhood skull of St. John the Baptist. Of course, no Orthodox believer thinks that St. John had two heads. The icon is not a worldly portrait of the saints, but the representation of their transcendent and eternal being. For the believer it is quite possible, that the saint, appearing in his otherworldly shape, points at his own relic revered in this world, as in fact happened, in the legend on the finding of the head of St. John the Baptist. The head lying in the bowl is a reference to an existing relic, which was preserved until 1204 in the palace chapel of Constantinople, and since the looting of Byzantium it is kept in the Amiens Cathedral. On the other hand, the severed head is also an attribute of the saint, a symbol referring to his martyrdom. In some 16th-century Greek icons John turns to Christ appearing in heaven, and by pointing to his skull relic on the earth, he holds this inscription in the hand:
“Seest Thou what suffer those who censure, O Word of God, the faults of the unclean. Not being able to bear censure, Lo Herod cut off my head, O Saviour.”
The scroll in the above icon, the other attribute of the saint, does not include this text, but the one he himself preached according to Matthew’s gospel. To understand it, let us see, instead of the Georgian icon, its Church Slavonic version in the recently visited monastery of Suceavița in Bucovina.
“Покайтеся, приближибося Царствие Небесное.” – “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” (Mt 3,2)
Another interesting feature of the Orthodox representation is that John is wearing wings, as if he were an angel. And indeed he is. In fact, the gospel of Mark describes him like this:
Ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου, ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου: φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ.
“Behold, I send my messenger/angel before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
The Greek word ἄγγελος means primarily “messenger”, and only in a second, Biblical sense the messengers of God, that is, the angels. However, the Greek icon tradition, to emphasize the divine mission of John, as well as what Jesus said about him: “among those born of women, there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11), is based the second meaning in shaping his figure.
In some other icons we see the angel-John with a different attribute and inscription:
“Аз видех и свидетельство ва онен: се Агнец Божии, вземляй грехи миpa” – “I have seen and I bear witness: Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29).
Instead of the head relic, John holds a cup in his hand, in which the naked child Jesus is floating, and he points on him. This symbol refers to the Mass, where the priest, when elevating the bread and wine converted into the body and blood of Christ, repeats these same words of John. As he takes over the text of John, so John here takes over from the priest the chalice with the host, testifying that Christ is truly present in them.
The same chalice with the Christ child floating in it can be seen in the outside wall of a number of Orthodox churches, to bear witness to the reality of the consecration that takes place inside, in the sanctuary. As we have seen, painted in the famous “Voroneț blue”, on the church of the Voroneț Monastery, founded in 1488 by the Moldovan prince Stephen the Great.