John the Baptist (c. 1405) by Theophanes the Greek. Located in the Annunciation Cathedral of the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia.
John the Baptist is counted second only to Mary as a model of saintly humility and deference. "Among those born of women none is greater than John," Jesus said of him, yet he followed an austere life and sought no glory for himself. In fact, given the opportunity to affirm that he was the Messiah, Elijah, or a prophet—a triple temptation to power that Jesus similarly faced—he denied that he was anything more than a voice crying in the wilderness.
As the Forerunner, it was John’s role to prepare the way for the Lord, and when he had arrived, to withdraw. So when he pointed out Jesus on the banks of the River Jordan, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world," he was simultaneously declaring the end of his own mission on earth: The One greater than he had arrived, and henceforth he would decrease.
The self-effacing character revealed in that moment is central to virtually every portrayal of John in art, even more than his ministry of baptism. In the pictorial traditions of both East and West, scenes in which John takes center stage are scarce. More often he is shown diverting any attention sent his way toward Jesus, who may figure explicitly in the scene with him, perhaps along with Mary and other saints, or figuratively, as a lamb, say, or a crucifix. On occasion, however, Jesus’ presence is only implicit, or remote, either because he is set off in a physically separate panel, or because no such companion piece even exists.
The Whole Picture
In this icon, for instance, attributed with some controversy to Theophanes the Greek (ca. 1330-ca.1410), one of the great Russian iconographers, we see the Baptist by himself in a characteristic pose: turned to one side, his back and head humbly bowed, his hands and entire demeanor disposed to usher our attention to—well, presumably to Jesus, though we do not see him here.
Like many icons, this one was not in fact intended to be seen thus in isolation. It belongs with a dozen or so panels of various saints and angels (including one of Mary, also attributed to Theophanes, and others purportedly by his assistant, the legendary Andrei Rublev), arranged around a large central icon of Christ enthroned. Together they compose just one tier of the elaborate iconostasis (or altar screen) in the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Moscow Kremlin. We have to imagine therefore John not alone, but John in the company of a host of worshipful figures, in a church whose every other interior surface is splendid with icons and frescoes and gold leaf, all turning around the image of the glorious Savior.
Nevertheless, singleton depictions of John are by no means unknown. Although this one is linked to others in a group, it bears examination on its own—the more so when we realize that it was originally a single object, with its own built-in frame, before it was merged into a larger composition. Besides, multipartite objects like iconostases and altarpieces are not infrequently broken up or dismembered, so that each component must of necessity be examined separately.
But more to the point, this is a case where the significance of the part is greatly enhanced by examining it apart from the whole, just as a single rose may speak more eloquently than an entire bouquet. When John appears by himself—whether by chance or design—he speaks profoundly about icons, and art, and faith itself.
Take "directional forces" as a starting point. In design analysis, these are visual paths that help the eye to move in and around a composition. Lines and edges are powerful directors of our eyes. So are the glances of eyes depicted in a work of art: We naturally look to see what other people are looking at, even when the people are only artistic representations. Here the linear folds of John’s drapery lead us inevitably to his hands and head, but his hands and especially his eyes send us off somewhere to the left of the piece. Ordinarily, artists strive mightily to hold their viewer’s eyes to their work for as long as possible; they don’t want them straying too easily past the frame to the wall adjacent or to another piece of art. But with images of John the Baptist, there are unavoidable inducements to do just that: John wants us to look at Jesus, wherever he may be, not at himself, and Theophanes has obliged in the pose of his figure. The directional forces he sets up send us away from John—and from the icon itself—to Jesus in the next icon over. It is a strange kind of art that encourages us not to look at it!
But we are not for the present acknowledging any image beside this one. We have in effect only John, bearing witness with his gaze and his gestures that "God is true" (Jn 3:33). It was to testify to the Son of God that the Baptist was sent into the world, and in this icon he carries on his work for us who live now long after Jesus walked the earth—who have indeed never seen him. Thanks to the iconographer, we may look upon the image of one who does see what we cannot see, a trustworthy witness who has seen and believed before us—and for us—so that we also might come to believe. The icon of John is literally "evidence of things that are not seen" (Heb 11:1), faith itself made visible.
In consequence, John also is called "the Sign," because he shows the way to Jesus. A sign, in essence, is a thing (a sound, a visual form, etc.) that "points" away from itself to a second thing—the intended meaning, or original object, or, in the language of iconography, the "prototype." The word "John" is a sign pointing to the real person John, and a painted portrait of John does the same thing. We may choose to focus on the sign itself—as is necessary, for example, when conducting a formal artistic analysis—but if we do not ultimately follow its direction and recognize the meaning to be communicated, we will miss the literal "point" of the sign, like young children who look at the finger, not what it is aimed at. It is a case of the message being more important than the messenger.
The Transparent Medium
Perhaps more than any other form of art, icons engage themselves to be messengers, and so they aspire to be self-effacing and unobtrusive. They wish to make themselves known only to the extent necessary to ensure that we, the intended recipients, recognize and honor their prototypes. The materials and colors, the gold and painted forms we see in an icon are not to be focused on, and to attend to their often striking physical beauty is to continue to miss the point, like admiring the messengers’ clothing or the sound of their voice. (It could be argued, however, that this oft-stated teaching about icons is perhaps a little disingenuous, especially when we know that God communicates through beauty as directly as he does by other means; if taken seriously, we would expect icons to be actually ugly and made from the meanest materials.)
But every example of figurative art, whether iconic or not, realistic or of the abstract variety, functions as a messenger or sign. Every work of art is made from simple artistic materials, which in figurative art are arranged to take on the appearance of other things, like landscapes or still-lifes or people. As signs, they may point to these things so insistently—particularly in illusionistic or deliberately deceptive trompe l’oeil images—that we see right through them, as it were, demanding a conscious effort on our part to see the actual paint and wood and other physical stuff they are made from. For the sake of the message, these humble servants of art and the artist allow themselves to be "overlooked": They become transparent, signs hiding themselves in the wilderness, making way for trees, or bowls of fruit—or the Son of God. It is only in non-objective styles of art, which attempt no imitation, or even intimation, of a separate reality, that the materials of art stand up to proclaim proudly—but justly—the nobility of their own material reality: "Admire us for what we are, not what we are made to look like!"
But there is an even further level of self-effacement at work here. When we look at a work of art, we see shapes and colors that remind us of a person or some other thing; the physical sign retreats behind the appearances it represents. But these appearances themselves go on to inspire (or point to) feelings and memories and ideas in our minds. The sign communicates its message, which itself becomes a sign pointing to another message, and so on. Soon we are scarcely conscious of the original work of art any more. We are moving through the inner world of imagination and truth. The "work" of art is done, and accordingly it decreases, and yields to something that comes after it.
We Must Decrease
Yet its work is never entirely done. Our memories are short, and our minds easily distracted. The sign remains to point out what needs to be pointed out again and again, unto generations of generations. Signs are everywhere, and everything in creation can be a sign, if we have eyes to see: a great chain of signs, created by the mind of Man and the eternal Logos, signs pointing to signs pointing to the ultimate Prototype, God himself, to whom we are directed by the Sign of all Signs, Jesus Christ, who said that those who had seen him had seen the Father.
Iconographers are "sign painters." It is their duty—as it is for their icons, as it was for John—not to assert or promote themselves. All their concern must be geared toward the messages they are appointed to deliver. For them to point to themselves by calling out their name or affixing a signature to their work would be an unthinkable mark of egotism. Crediting specific icons to specific iconographers is therefore an uncertain business. Theophanes apparently produced many more icons (and miniatures and frescos) than the few attributed to him today, but if he decreases, his work increases. John likewise so effectively deflected attention that devotion to him, the second-greatest saint, seems practically non-existent in comparison to that received by other well-known saints. But perhaps hereafter we may venerate him, discreetly, as patron of artists and sign-makers everywhere.