WHERE CAN WE FIND ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST?
By Canon Christopher Cook
With St John the Baptist as our patron it is not surprising that there are many representations of him in and around the church. But where are they? Look at the pictures, statues and symbols of St John shown here and then see if you can either guess where they are, or find them! There are more than you might imagine.
Figure 1. Shrine of St John
Figure 1 is the most impressive representation of St John in the church, as is wholly appropriate, for this is the principal Shrine of our Patron. The statue is by Sir Ninian Comper and shows St John as a youth, dressed in camel hair and carrying a roundel on which is carved the Agnus Dei. He is shown as thoughtful, with his eyes raised to heaven in prayer.
Figure 2. Statue of St John
This statue of St John is the only one which is outside the church, in one of the traditional places for the patron saint of a parish. In his left hand on a book he is carrying a lamb, the Agnus Dei, one of his symbols. It is as if the saint is here to welcome us as we enter his church.
Figure 3. Statue of St John
The statue of St John in Figure 3 is perhaps one of the most difficult to find! Again he is carrying a lamb, the Agnus Dei, and is carved from the same local stone as the surrounding stonework, the lovely warm red sandstone which is so typical of Liverpool.
Figure 4. Statue of St John as a child
A rather touching statue of John the Baptist as a young child. He looks slightly stern and determined, and is already adopting the clothing of his adult years, the garment of camel hair (St Matthew 3:4), though here it looks more like a sheep skin. Most paintings of St John at this age show him together with Jesus, his cousin, as they play together, and in the care of Our Lady.
Figure 5. Stained Glass Window
Figure 5 is a stained glass panel by Edward Burne-Jones, though it seems to have suffered some damage or deterioration. It is difficult to make out all the details, but St John is clearly wearing the rough camel hair garment, though the robe he wears over it is patterned and looks more sumptuous than one would expect! It is not clear what he is carrying in his left hand, but in the right he is holding staff surmounted by a cross, with a small pennant flying from it. It is difficult to read the text on the pennant, but, as we would expect, it seems to read “Ecce Agnus Dei” (Behold the Lamb of God). The head has not suffered so much from the ravages of time, and shows us a rather idealised and improbably blond-haired, beardless youth with a fair complexion.
Figure 6. Stained Glass Window
The stained glass window in Figure 6 shows us a conventional image of St John, wearing a loose robe over the garment of camel hair, and carrying in his right hand the staff or reed surmounted with a cross and flying the usual pennant, on which are written the words: “Ecce Agnus Dei.” He is bearded, but again,rather surprisingly, is shown as blond.
Figure 7. Icon of the Baptism of Christ by John
This is a fine Eastern Orthodox icon of the Baptism of Christ, with St John the Baptist standing on the bank of the river Jordan and placing his hand on Christ’s head. The Holy Spirit is seen descending on Jesus, and though a dove is depicted, it is minute, and is shown at the point where the flash of light divides into three. The four angels on the opposite bank are bowing towards Jesus and offering him towels with which to dry himself after his baptism. His halo is inscribed with the Greek for “He Who Is,” thereby proclaiming his divinity. The whole of creation joins John and the angels in worshipping the Son of God; the very rocks on either side are bowing towards Jesus in worship.
The red Greek lettering reads “he baptisma” which means “The baptism,” though the latter half of the text is written over some difficult to decipher writing in black.
Figure 8. Baptism of Christ by St John the Baptist
This is a very fine and beautiful painting of Christ’s baptism at the hands of John. His baptism is the second “Epiphany” or Manifestation of Christ, and so we are shown angels on either side with various instruments, rejoicing and giving thanks to God for what is taking place. This is the most realistic camel hair garment of all the pictures of St John! He is using a shell to baptise Jesus, and in his left hand is the conventional cross topped staff or reed, flying a blue pennant, a colour picked up by the robes of the flanking angels.
The structure of which this is part was designed by the church’s architect, George Frederick Bodley.
Figure 9. Baptism of Christ by St John the Baptist
Figure 9 is a rather simple painting of the Baptist baptising Christ. Immediately before his baptism Christ had spent forty day and nights in the wilderness. We are told that after being tempted by the devil angels came and ministered to him. And here they are. They have stayed on for the baptism and one of the three angels is holding out a towel with which Jesus can dry himself. Underneath the painting are the words of St John: “Ecce Agnus Dei,” Latin for “Behold the Lamb of God.”
Figure 10. Banner of St John the Baptist
This banner of St John is a fine example of needlework, though in need of some repair. The representation of the saint is quite traditional, showing him as dark haired and bearded, and holding in his arms his symbol, the Agnus Dei. The two scrolls above the saint read “Johannes Baptista,” and the bottom scroll has, as would be expected, the words, “Ecce Agnus Dei.” On either side of the banner are two white roses with a monogram “J” between them.
This banner is carried in procession on feast days of the saint and other important festivals.
Figure 11. Fresco of Christ the King flanked by Our Lady and St John the Baptist
This splendid fresco, painted on the wall above the arch of a doorway, shows Christ enthroned, being acclaimed by the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist as Universal King and Eternal High Priest. Our Lord holds open a book in which is written, “Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Our Lady holds a scroll with the words: “Do whatever he tells you.” St John’s scroll reads: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
It will be noticed that St John has wings, like an angel. This is more commonly found in the east than in western iconography. St John is there known as the “angel of the desert,” and this is based on the prophecy of the prophet Isaiah: “I send my messenger before you, to prepare your way” (Isaiah 40:3). The Greek word for “messenger” is angelos, or angel.
Another explanation is that through his sinless birth and his whole way of life, especially through his existence in the desert without any means of support apart from what could be found there (clothing of camel hair and a diet of locusts and wild honey), his life resembled that of the angels. Thus he is depicted as having wings. For all these reasons he was taken as a source of inspiration for the early desert fathers, those pioneers of the eremitical and monastic life. It is interesting that there are also a few other desert dwelling saints who are depicted with wings, such as the very popular Ethiopian saint, St Tekklehaymanot.
Figure 12. Icon of St John the Forerunner
Figure 12 is another Eastern icon of St John, again with wings and the scroll containing the quotation from the prophet Isaiah. The face is particularly impressive; it is determined, stern, rugged, but also serene. On a raised platter on his left is his severed head.
Figure 13. Agnus Dei being censed by two Angels
It will be obvious by now that a lamb is often used as a symbol of St John the Baptist. This is very much a western usage, and is not generally found in the east. The reason for this is that the lamb, or Agnus Dei, is more properly a symbol of Christ himself. It becomes also a symbol of St John in the west, albeit in a secondary sense, because it was the Baptist who as he saw Jesus coming towards him to be baptised exclaimed: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29) The very next day when he was with two of his disciples St John again saw Jesus, and said once more: “Behold, the Lamb of God,” upon which the two disciples went to follow Jesus. (John 1: 35-37)
There is much discussion among theologians as to how St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist envisaged Jesus as the Lamb of God, and how we are to understand the term now. In fact, there are several references in the Old Testament to the Lamb in connection with the Messiah, all of which help us to a deeper understanding of the imagery.
According to St John the Evangelist, Jesus died on the cross at the same time that the passover lambs were sacrificed in the Temple. The Passover Lamb recalls the killing of a lamb by each household on the night of the escape of the Israelites from Egypt and the smearing of that blood on the wooden lintels of the doorways, as a sign for the angel of death to pass over without killing the firstborn sons of the Israelites. The blood of the lambs therefore effected their escape from slavery and eventual entry into the Promised Land (Exodus 12). The blood of Jesus will in the same way deliver his people from death, bring fullness of life and entry into the Promised Land of heaven. In this sense Jesus is the Lamb of God, slain to redeem his people.
This imagery of the Lamb is reinforced by its use in the Book of Revelation. The one seated on the throne hands the scroll with its seven seals to the Lamb, before whom the four living creatures and twenty four elders fall down and offer incense. They and the myriads of angels cry out: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing.” (Rev 5:1-14) Figure 13 is clearly based on this vision. The Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) is being worshipped and adored by two angels, who are offering incense to the Lamb.
In chapters six to nine in the Book of Revelation the Lamb opens the seven seals of the scroll, after which the judgement of the world takes place. In chapter twenty the Book of Life is opened, which ushers in the Last Judgement. It seems a little ambiguous, but the book on which the Agnus Dei or Lamb of God is standing in figures 2, 3, 9 and 15 probably represents the scroll with the seven seals. Indeed, in many images the book is shown as having seven seals.
Figure 14. Agnus Dei and a Shell
Figure 14 shows two symbols of St John, a scallop shell, representing the shell which can be used in baptism, and, second, the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). In Figures 8 and 9 the Baptist appears to be using a shell or something similar for the baptism, though in the eastern icon in Figure 6 it looks as if the Baptist has used his hand. It should be said that in the West a scallop shell is more generally used as a symbol of St James and of the pilgrimage to his shrine at Santiago de Compostella.
The two shields are superimposed on a background showing the monogram IHS, the first three letters of the Greek word for Jesus, surmounted by crowns denoting his universal Kingship.
Figure 15. Agnus Dei
This is a very fine Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), and the Lamb sports a halo containing a cross, which always denotes the Son of God. The words of St John are on a scroll underneath the image, “Ecce Agnus Dei” (“Behold, the Lamb of God.”) Here, as also in figures 13 and 14 the Lamb carries a staff or pole with a pennant or flag showing a red cross on a white background. This flag represents the victory of Christ’s resurrection, and in various colours was used as a symbol of the Faith during the Crusades. Sometimes the flag was a white cross on a red background, but red on white became the most popular, finding its way onto pictures of Christ rising from the tomb, and of the Agnus Dei. The association of this flag with St George and England was secondary and a slightly later development.
This Agnus Dei is found on the altar in what is called the Chapel of St John. This seems a little strange, because in a church actually dedicated to St John the Baptist it is the High Altar which is the altar of the Patron Saint, and other altars would normally have other dedications.
Figure 16. Gilded wooden statue of St John bearing the Agnus Dei.
This attractive gilded statue of St John the Baptist brings to an end this guide to the statues, paintings and emblems of our Patron to be found in this church. It is true to say that this statue is easily missed, but is obvious once it is found!