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 Gospel according to Luke contains an account of John the Baptist’s infancy: “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel.”(Luke 1: 80). Yet the Evangelists say nothing about how he found himself in the desert and what had happened with his parents. The apocryphal tradition connects the living of John the Baptist with the massacre of the innocents by King Herod. Other synoptic Evangelists report that John the Baptist performed his ministry in the “Desert of Judea”. (Matthew 3: 1) and near the river Jordan (Matthew 3: 5–6; Mark 1: 5). The Evangelists Matthew and Mark pay special attention to the clothes worn by John the Baptist and his way of life. He wore “raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey” and lived on locusts and wild honey. The circumstances of John’s ministry were represented in the saint’s iconography. A 10th – 11th icon of “St. John the Baptist Preaching in the Desert” depicts John the Baptist being called to ministry: the saint is portrayed in a devotional pose against a rocky landscape (first time on the frescoes in Cappadocia and Tokali Kilise (capella 7) in Goreme, the late 10th century). Another iconographic variant of John the Baptist’s iconography features a frontal figure of the saint against a desert landscape. The earliest depictions of St. John the Baptist are encountered on the frescoes of the Church of the Annunciation on Miachina in Veliky Novgorod (1189), on the icons of the Great Martyr Catherine on Sinai (John the Baptist in the desert, with three scenes from his life, the late 12th century). In the Byzantine and medieval Russian art, a composition of John the Baptist in the Desert existed as both an independent iconic image and part of the saint’s life cycle such as a border scene of a quadroptych from State Tretyakov Gallery (the late 14th – early 15th centuries); a tablet icon from the St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod (the late 15th century) and others.

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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