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Saint John the Forerunner holds the diskos, or paten (the object resembling a chalice) in his left hand. An Orthodox liturgical instrument, the diskos holds the Eucharistic bread (called agnets or amnos, meaning 'lamb') during the Divine Liturgy. A 19th century example from Moscow, which was once used in liturgical services, can be seen below (fig. a) .
In the middle of the diskos is the small naked figure of Christ blessing with his right hand, symbolising the Lamb of God of the Eucharist. John holds the chalice in his right hand together with a scroll with the partly abraded text: 'As Videkh i Svidelstvo Va Onen: Ce Agnetsbijhiy vzemlai Gryekhiy' (‘I saw and witnessed concerning him, behold the lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world’ John 1:29). The fact that Christ's body is shown - rather than the bread - signifies the Orthodox belief that the bread is the resurrected body of Christ. Also, the 7th century Council of Trullo had decreed against the symbolism of the 'lamb' because it had been superseded by the Incarnation. Actual liturgical instruments would have depictions of Christ and other holy figures, or angelic beings, such as Cherubim, as we find in fig. a.
Speaking on a 10th century chalice that has an image of Christ Pantocrator at the bottom of the inner cup (see fig. b), Alexei Lidov states that this would have acted as 'a visible testimony of the Eucharistic miracle of the transubstantiation of wine into the blood of Christ'. Our iconography is attempting a similar aim, but with the transubstantiation of the bread into the body of Christ. What we are seeing is the invisible reality that matter hides, and thus functions as a visual aid to those participating in the liturgy.
John is shown holding Christ in the liturgical diskos as he prophesised and witnessed the coming of Christ, preparing 'the way of the Lord' (Mark 1:3). Hence he is sometimes called 'the Forerunner'.
Though the iconography touches on a profoundly Orthodox theme, its development is relatively late, starting in the mid-16th century in Russia and becoming popular in the 17th century. Yet it visually echoes the earlier iconography of John holding his own severed head in a dish (this iconography developed around 1300, for a 16th c. example, see fig. c), a reference to the biblical narrative of his beheading by Herod (Matt. 14:10; Mark 6:27-9; See also our icon of the 'Beheading of St John the Baptist' in this exhibition: No. 23). Some of the earliest iconographies of our subject directly reflect these icons, but replacing John's head with Christ's body (see fig. d and compare with fig. c).
Half-length icons of John holding a diskos, like our example, also developed in this period (see fig. e)