Temple Gallery

Established 1959

Saint John the Baptist (Angel of the Wilderness) - exhibited at the Temple Gallery, specialists in Russian icons

[ Click on the above image for a full screen view ]

UU017. Saint John the Baptist (Angel of the Wilderness)

Late 18th century
Painted and glazed marble
15 x 13 cmClick here to convert metric size to imperial

£1,200 [Sold]Click here to convert price to USD or EUR

[ Click on any image for a larger view ]   Switch to full-screen mode

Saint John the Baptist is depicted in half-length. In his left hand he holds a dish with his head inside - a reference to his beheading by Herod in the synoptic gospels (e.g. Mark 6: 14-29) - and a cross symbolising his martyrdom. His right hand blesses the viewer.

John is sometimes depicted in icons, as in the current example, with wings. This refers to his role as a messenger of the Lord: 'Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way beforeĀ  Me (Malachi 3:1); 'A voice of one calling in the wilderness, "Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him"' (Matt 3:3; Isaiah 40:3). The word 'messenger' means 'angel'. There was also a connection in Christian monasticism, especially during the early Desert Movement, between ascetics who lived in the wilderness and angels. Those who lived in an extremely ascetical manner were described as living the 'angelic life'.[1] There were also traditions in early Jewish mysticism of ascetic heroes (e.g. Enoch) ascending to heaven where they were transformed into an angel.[2]

Marble icons are rare in Eastern Christian art, but the practice derives from the Byzantine period.[3] Our version has been glazed imparting a warm, festive glow. The fact that it is made using these materials suggests that it perhaps originally decorated the exterior of a church. Byzantine icons created with glazed earthenware adorned the outside of churches. A 13th century example once decorated the exterior the Church of St Basil in Arta, Greece (fig. a). The smaller size of our example suggests means that it was unlikely to have been placed this high up, but it may have occupied an area lower to the ground. It is also likely that it was part of a larger series of panels.

Fig. a. Crucifixion, Byzantine, 13th century, Church of St Basil, Arta, Greece

1. See Kristi Upson-Saia, Dressing Judeans and Christians in Antiquity, (London, Routledge, 2016), especially Chapter 8, 'hairiness and holiness in the Egyptian desert', p. 155-174
2. For example, see Andrei Orlov, 'Titles of Enoch-Metatron in 2 Enoch'. Published online at:
3. Helen Evans [ed.], Byzantium: Faith and Power, 1261-1557, (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004), p. 78-79

Detail Images