Dear Fr Christopher,
I noticed that most, if not all Greek Orthodox Churches (& other
Orthodox Churches) have icons of St John the Forerunner & Baptist
wearing wings. Why is he depicted with the wings of an angel? Is it
perhaps because he lived a holy, ascetic, humble and angelic life?
Scripture describes the cherubim and seraphim as having six wings, but
at all other times when angels have appeared to men they have appeared
without wings so not all angels have wings even though they are always
portrayed in Icons with wings. The wings of the angel symbolizes
swiftness and “the lightness of the wings denotes their being in no
respect earthly, but undefiled and lightly raised to the sublime” (St
Dionysius, The Celestial Hierarchy).
John the Forerunner is termed as a heavenly man and an earthly angel
because he lived a holy, ascetic, humble and angelic life? But his
portrayal with wings in Icons has nothing to do with the symbolism given
to the wings of angels, but rather to the word angel (άγγελος) which in
Greek means messenger. Iconographers followed to the letter the words of
the Prophet Malachi (3:1) which Matthew and Mark interpret as referring
to John the Baptist: "For this is [he], of whom it is written, Behold, I
ἄγγελόν μου) my
messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee."
(Matt. 11:10). "As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send (τὸν
my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the
Lord, make his paths straight." (Mark 1:2-3). Thus iconographers chose
to give emphasis to the word άγγελος meaning messenger by giving John
wings like the heavenly angels.