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Artwork of the Week

Artwork of the Week: John the Baptist

John the Baptist
Russian Icon, 'John the Baptist,' no date, tempera on board, 17 3/8 x 14 1/4 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, gift of Richard and Nadene Oliver, 2020.

At first glance, the abstract imagery of this work may appear unfamiliar to those unaccustomed to its sacred language. However, for Russian Orthodox Christians, this icon is a beautiful invitation to meditate on sacred doctrine.

In the Russian Orthodox tradition, artists who create icons are referred to as “iconwriters.” This title reflects the belief that icons are more than images—they are sacred windows into a place beyond our world. Like scripture or theological treatises, these sacred windows have the power to expound on doctrine. The unknown iconwriter who created John the Baptist abstracted the biblical prophet’s facial features and hair, stylized the folds in his cloak, and placed him on a gold background to signal the divine otherworldliness of the scene. Rather than seeking personal artistic expression, the iconwriter utilized the traditional iconography of Orthodox icons.

Looking closely at the painting, follow the direction of John’s pointed gesture. You may be surprised to find Christ present in the form of an impossibly small infant lying in the chalice.

The novelty of this composition was intended to surprise the viewer and encourage them to ponder its symbolism. Contemplating the presence of Christ as a nude infant in a chalice, the viewer is led to think about the Eucharist. According to Orthodox tradition, in the Eucharist, the host (a wafer) and the wine (presented in a chalice) are literally transformed into the body and blood of God. Raising the body and blood of Christ, a priest re-creates the crucifixion. By placing the infant body of Jesus in the chalice, the iconwriter emphasizes the great humility and love of God. He chose to contain his Godly spirit in a mortal frame, condescending to become a humble baby who would one day bleed and die for the redemption of the world.

Through abstract and mystical visual language, this timeworn icon provides a unique scene that reminds viewers of the miracles of Christ’s condescension and the Eucharist.

Guest author: Curatorial fellow Ivy Griffiths

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Is this a painting, or is it a sculpture?
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