St. John the Baptist — also known as St. John the Forerunner — is one of my favorite saints to paint! I love his wild hair, his long straggly beard, and his green camel’s hair garment that looks like water. When I was first learning to paint icons in egg tempera with Vladislav in the 1990s, this was the third icon that Vladislav allowed us to paint. First, we painted the Archangel Michael, then we painted Gabriel as a mirror image of Michael, and then we painted John the Baptist. John is an excellent icon for beginning-level students to transition into intermediate-level painting.
Our icon of John is based on an ancient medieval woodcut, reworked into Byzantine line. Unique to this image is John’s hair, blown back from his face by the wind of Spirit, who inspires him to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. John holds in his hand the staff of the messenger, symbolizing his role as a messenger from God. Scripture does not tell us anything about John’s early life, but one strand of ancient tradition tells us that John’s father Zachariah was killed in the temple by Roman soldiers during the Slaughter of the Innocents after the birth of Jesus. John’s mother Elizabeth fled with her baby to the dessert, where she found refuge with the Essenes. John grew up in the wilderness and lived an ascetic life (eating “locusts and wild honey”), often indicated in the icons by his thin arms and legs.
The story and description of John the Baptist, the last and greatest of all the prophets, can be found at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, which opens with the ancient prophecy of Isaiah, realized in the person of John:
See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
As we prepare to paint the icon of John in 2023, let us ask ourselves, “What in our own lives do we need to change? How does John’s voice call to each of us to prepare the way of the Lord, to prepare to welcome Christ into our own lives? How will John speak to each of us this year as we paint his face, writing the Gospel in line and color with our brushes and our pigments?”
This class begins with an introductory session on Friday, January 27, followed by two weeks of preparatory time for gilding and line work. Painting classes begin on Friday, February 10, and continue weekly thereafter until the end of April (with a break for Easter and another break). For additional information, and to register for this class, please go to our CLASSES page and follow the registration link for John the Baptist.