This icon of St John, the Forerunner, Precursor or Prodromus
(as inscribed in Greek), was completed several years ago when
I first "discovered" the ancient iconography style. It is based on
a late-Byzantine icon that is now part of the British Museum's collection.
St John Icon History
The original icon of St John (above) was removed from its first setting many centuries ago and no one really knows if it was made for a church or commissioned for private devotion in a monastery or home.It is generally thought to be from Constantinople because of the rich attributes, however, the icon resembles little else from that period. No matching pieces have ever been found.
Usually, St John is covered with a woolly hide, maybe a hair shirt robe and he is always depicted with disheveled hair. Here you see that although his hair is in the traditional, unruly state, with ends all pointing heavenwards, he is unusually attired in an elegant mantle (himation) and reddish tunic (chiton) with a royal sash/stripe of authority and high social status (clavium) over his shoulder. The only hint of fur is discovered inside the arm sleeves below his blessing hand and scroll. I can only guess that the artist was asked to present St John as a powerful figure, having obtained a rightful, high position within the heavenly court.
John Dressed in Fine Clothing
Perhaps the artist was directed to give St John an honorary and royal touch.
" Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, 'What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.'"
A prophetic statement indeed.
What is An Icon
An icon is not a "portrait" in the same way that a photograph or biographical painting is, for example. Often you'll see that the icon image is purposely unrealistic in some way. In this icon of St John, he is shown leaving the frame and entering the world for instance and the blessing hand fingers might be described as "noodly". The fingers simply don't match in size at all. On my version, I balanced them out more, but still left the hands with a decidedly unrealistic quality.
That's the charm of these old prototypes- on the one hand, you note their characteristically human qualities but, upon a more thorough study, the observer is made somewhat uncomfortable by the purposeful distortions. If I am understanding this correctly, the devotee is reminded, in this way, that the person venerated in the icon is, in fact, only an image and not the "real deal". This all gets very complicated theologically. There are proscribed, appropriate and traditional ways to depict this artistic reality as well. It's not as random as it appears. It takes years of study.
Learning about the Saint
Finally, when rendering an image, I always look for inspirational writings on the life of the saint being depicted. Plenty of information on St. John is readily available online or through books.
Below is a fine meditation published on 12/15/2013:
"The Gospel today is best seen in three stages as John the Baptist, and we with him, are encouraged to make a journey from puzzlement, through purification to perfection; a journey to understand that the perfect gift is not of our own imagining, but of God’s true offer. Here is a Gospel that encourages us to find and appreciate the perfect gift." ...continued
by C M Jentz 12/15/2013
The relics of St John Baptist blog
Notes, Art, Photography CMJENTZ ©2013-2018
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