Why show John the Baptist with wings?

The Herald of Christ shares some angelic attributes

There’s a popular energy drink that claims it can give you wings.

Hold on, you might say. Only angels have wings.

Technically, they don’t either, since angels are purely spiritual and non-corporeal beings. However, wings have been used in art depicting angels for centuries to represent their God-appointed role as messengers.

Angels are not the only beings represented with wings in art.

The Eastern Orthodox, the Byzantine Catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches have a tradition of religious icons that show John the Baptist with wings. John was just a human being — the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. He was born and grew up like anyone else. No doubt, he wasn’t angelic all the time.

Messenger

However, his role as a divine messenger — the Forerunner of Christ — gives him an angelic quality in Eastern religious art. The Greek word for messenger is “evangelos” from which we get both the word “evangelist” and “angel.” On the feast day of John’s birth — June 24 — the Orthodox churches sing a hymn which proclaims him as both “an earthly angel” and a “heavenly man.”

This emphasizes John’s role as a bridge between the Old and the New Testaments. He is the last of the prophets before the coming of Christ. He was also the first to announce the arrival of the adult Christ to the public. As John the Evangelist wrote: “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony to testify to the light …” (Jn 1:6-7).

John, even when shown with wings, is also depicted as a prophet in icons: he holds an unrolled scroll with the Word of God written on it. Often the words are either from Malachi, or from Mt 3:2: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

While the Greek word for angel is evangelos — Greek was the first language of the New Testament — the Hebrew word for angel is malak. And while malak can mean angels, it can also mean human messengers, such as those sent by kings.

John’s role was ordained by the King of Heaven; he was sent to bring a message to the world. John was also the herald of Christ. In this, he shares a role similar to that of the angels in Luke’s infancy narrative — they brought tidings of great joy. The angels at Jesus’ birth served as the “herald angels” of Good News, just as John announced the Good News that appeared with Christ.

Prophet scroll

John’s role was foretold by the prophet Malachi — remember the scroll John holds in icons —  written 400-500 years before John’s birth: “Now I am sending my messenger — he will prepare the way before me …” (1:1).

This role as divine messenger explains why John has wings in some icons. The earliest of these icons date to the 13th century in Byzantium (modern Istanbul). Even earlier is the seventh century prayer, attributed to St. Germanus of Constantinople: “How shall we call thee, O prophet? Angel, apostle or martyr? Angel, for thou hast led an incorporeal life. Apostle, for thou hast taught the nations. Martyr, for thou hast been beheaded for Christ.” This is used on the feast of John’s birth, June 24.

In Russian icons, which came later, we sometimes see another angelic image of John ­— as the Angel of the Desert. In this, John also has wings and carries his head on a platter. The platter depicts his martyrdom, but the icon also shows his role as a desert hermit. He wears his camel-hair robe and his hair is unkempt. Often he is surrounded by wild animals.

As the anonymous writer of the icon blogsite, iconreader.wordpress.com, noted, John the Baptist “lived a life of chastity, abstinence and prayer, not being mindful of material needs, but with his attention fixed firmly to heaven. This is the life of the angels, and why the monastic way of life is sometimes called ‘angelic.’”

John’s life, as God’s messenger and Christ’s herald, gave him a special place in the church’s salvation history — that place may not have given him real wings, but it assured his heavenly vocation.

Sources: hebrewwordlessons.com; Strong’s Bible Dictionary; iconreader.wordpress.com; russianicon.com; aleteia.com; domnasicons.com; daydreamtourist.com; ruznikov.com; reinkat.wordpress.com; the Orthodox Church in America at oca.org; and the Catholic Encyclopedia