John the Forerunner in the desert

Region: Russia (Yaroslavl)
Period: Mid 17th century
Size: 31,5 x 26,5 cm


Wearing a garment made out of camel’s hair, his body etched by the desert life where he fed on locusts and wild honey, and gazing at us with piercing eyes, John the Baptist steps towards the beholder. His message is as poignant as it is pressing: repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. The axe has already been laid at the root of the tree. Any tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. To underline this message, the tree and the axe are among the sparse attributes added to the scene.

The word ἄγγελος (angelos) means “messenger” in Greek, and being a heavenly messenger, John appears here with the wings of an angel. In Orthodoxy, John the Baptist is referred to as John the Forerunner – a reference to a prophecy by Isaiah: “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isaiah 40:3).”