Sister Pansemni of Akritohori Convent, Icon of John the Baptist
Saint John the Baptist, also known as the Forerunner (Prodromos in Greek), is depicted in this icon as he would be in most Orthodox icons. He has unkempt hair and a long beard. He is wearing a hairshirt made of hair under his green robe. He is known through scripture to preach in the desert, which is why he appears less polished than the other saints and has attributes to nature.
The name John the Forerunner is derived from his role as the prophet who announced the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. We see John here pointing to a bust-length image of Christ, held in a bowl. The inscription on the scroll behind Christ reads, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
Among the earliest surviving Byzantine icons of John the Baptist, a 6th-century example originally from Mount Sinai, now in Kiev, shows him pointing to an image of Christ in a medallion over his right shoulder. The scroll in his left hand has the same inscription as Sister Pansemni’s icon. The text provides the audience with context of the role St John the Baptist played in Christ’s life. He is the witness of Christ and he points to the one who will redeem human kind by sacrificing himself. Although in early Christian depictions God is represented as a lamb, he appears here in human form. This symbolizing how John is witness to God’s divinity and his humanity.1
This particular icon aligns with the common stylistic characteristics of Greek Orthodox Icons. The body and attributes of John are elongated and thin, showing that he is not like other human beings, but rather a holy martyr. This is typical iconography for ascetic saints and hermits in Byzantine tradition. They appear immaterial because they do not over indulge in the humanly delights and they do not eat meat.2 The use of gold, in particular in the halo around his head, also points to the fact that he is a holy saint. The small image of Christ appears with a gold halo around his head as well.
What is unusual about this icon is the representation of John the Baptist holding the bust of Christ in a bowl-like object. This seems to conflate two distinct iconographic traditions. Most icons in the monasteries of Mount Athos depict the John the Baptist holding or pointing to his own head in a chalice or bowl-like receptacle, thus illustrating his prophetic knowledge of his own future decapitation on the order of King Herod. Another tradition common in Russian icons, however, depicts John the Baptist holding the infant Christ in a chalice or bowl as an allusion to the amnos or sacrificial body of Christ in the eucharist. Perhaps the closest comparison for Sister Pansemni’s icon is found on a double sided icon in the Pantokrator Monastery, dated to the late 14th century: it depicts John the Baptist in a half-length frontal portrait painting with his right hand to a bust of Christ set within a medallion attached to a cross staff; the opposite side of the icon depicts the Forerunner facing the Mother of God with the Christ-child, and shows John pointing to his own decaptiated head in a bowl like object at his feet.3
The image of Saint John the Baptist is fitting for the artist, Sister Pansemni, since he is the patron saint of the Akritohori Convent to which she belongs. This icon was made for the convent, rather than an Athonite monastery. It is included in the exhibition because the convent on the Greek mainland is affiliated with the Xenophontos monastery. The monks often travel to the convent to celebrate the liturgy there.
Kathleen Corrigan, “The Witness of John the Baptist on an Early Byzantine Icon in Kiev,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 42 (1988):1-11.
Karakatsanis, Athanasias, ed. Treasures of Mount Athos, exhibition catalogue, Thessaloniki: Museum of Byzantine Culture, 1997.
Henry Maguire, The Icons of Their Bodies. Saints and Their Images in Byzantium Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Kurt Weitzmann, The Icon: Holy Images, Sixth to Fourteenth Century New York: George Braziller, 1978.
1Corrigan, “The Witness of John the Baptist on an Early Byzantine Icon in Kiev.”
2William J. Diebold, “Review of The Icons of their Bodies: Saints and their Images in Byzantium by Henry Maguire,” (1999), http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/stable/pdf/23923563.pdf.
3E. N. Tsigaridis, “Portable Icons,” in Karakatsanis, ed. Treasures of Mount Athos, no. 2.19, 84-86.