John the Baptist played a significant role in paving the way for the arrival of the Christ. He is often depicted as a divine messenger and a prophet. But why do many iconographers depicted him with wings?
The wings mostly represented his divine role as a messenger. But it is good to know that the angels Gabriel and Michael are also depicted having wings although they were not specifically characterized in the Scriptures having them, which could indicate that the wings John carried are symbolic.
But if it was just symbolism, then why the prophets or Apostles didn’t have them? The answer mostly is in the words of Jesus himself when he acknowledged that John is the apex of the prophets as proclaimed from the feast of John’s nativity.
He is also proclaimed as Jesus’s Forerunner and a great preacher of God. Hence, Russian Iconographers made John an example of a heavenly man but an earthly angel. He is also represented as the “Angel of the Desert” as the image above shows.
John is an advocate of puritans, hermits and unworldly pursuits. He lived a life of not caring for any material needs as his main goal was to deliver the message of Christ’s coming while he lives in the desert. Similarly, the life carried by John has also been the monastic way of life, which led to Russian Iconographers to depict him with wings similar to a dove.
Those who analyze the importance of John sees him as a connector of the Old and the New as he stands at the end of the Old Testament and started the tale of the New Scriptures. John the Baptist did not marry but was focused only on his spirituality and how to prepare the people of God for the coming of his Son.
The icon of St John has been a popular subject in Eastern and in Western art as the painting showing the Prophet as an angel started in thirteenth-century Byzantium. This spread through all parts of the Eastern Church but was considered an unorthodox by the Western Church during the post-Byzantine period.
St John the Baptist, Angel of the Desert is considered as one of the most popular kinds of Russian icons especially in the tradition of Eastern Orthodox but not in Western art. However, Russia considered this type of art very popular and spread widely in the 16th and 17th centuries.