A Prophet Without a Scribe, or John the Lonesome

A photo of a homemade icon of St John the Theologian against a grid of gray and white squares.

I found this at a thrift store a few days ago. I wasn’t sure what I’d do with it, but it’s a twofer for me. I’m fascinated by religious icons (in the orthodox sense) and I love finding art objects that meant something to someone at some point but have ended up discarded.

I wasn’t sure which saint this was when I picked it up, but was pretty confident it was probably one of the Four Evangelists from the New Testament. When I got home, I tried a few image searches and finally ended up learning that the Greek text says “Saint John the Theologian”.

This is where it gets interesting for me, iconographically.

It’s common practice for saints to be depicted with specific symbols or in specific contexts so they’re easy to recognize. For example in this image, there’s a pretty good chance it’s one of the Four Evangelists due to the scroll on the writing desk.

However, it gets tricky when talking about St John, because depending on who you talk to (or read), there are at least two Johns that contributed to the Bible (neither of which is John the Baptist), and this doesn’t even get into the work attributed to a John but was possibly written and compiled by a “Johannine community” (a sort of early intentional community dedicated to living a Christianity informed by the writings of St John the Evangelist, the one credited with the Book of John.)

Luckily we have two things to clarify which John we’re looking at here. First, as noted above, he’s labeled as “The Theologian”. That is generally agreed to be a different John than the Apostle. There’s also his pose, which in orthodox iconographic language, is a very specific moment in Christian history. Specifically, it’s when God is telling this particular John about the eventual Apocalypse, the ascension of the Anti-Christ, and the return of Christ: The Revelation.

So this little home-made, discarded plywood icon is of John the Theologian aka John of Patmos (the island where the Revelation happened) aka John the Revelator.

What makes this little panel extra interesting to me is that in almost every image that comes up on the internet for this moment/icon, is that it includes a man writing to the right of John named Prochorus, called John’s scribe. I haven’t done enough research yet to know whether this idea that John had someone writing as he heard and then spoke the Revelation is specifically Orthodox, or if there are competing ideas about this. Either way it means that I have a John Without His Scribe and that seems significant.

Tantalizingly, if you look at the right side of the panel, you’ll notice it’s not square to the top and bottom. I wondered for a little bit if the panel had been cut in half to remove Prochorus, but there aren’t any tool marks and it doesn’t look like it was sanded any more carefully than the other sides, so I don’t think that’s what happened. I suppose it’s possible that the drawing/painting was cut to remove Prochorus before it was glued to the panel but it really doesn’t matter. I just have an icon of John the Lonesome.

One of the persistent legends that you hear about the Book of Revelation is that John was tripping balls on psilocybin mushrooms, which apparently grow pretty freely on the island of Patmos. John had been exiled there for being generally Christian around people who didn’t care for it, so maybe he was high! We can’t know for sure. Maybe the mushrooms are what opened his conduit to God.

Regardless, if Prochorus hadn’t been there, would John have just rattled off the words of God into the wind? Woken up the next morning and thought to himself, “Hooboy that was a weird dream. I should write it down” but then wandered off to pee and make coffee and let it slip away like all dreams?

What would our world be like without the Book of Revelation? All those churches and preachers who made it their business to whip people into line with declarations of imminent rains of blood and battles of demons and the rapture would have to come up with a new game.

To be sure, there are plenty of end-of-the-world prophecies from any number of cultures, so in all likelihood, Christianity would have come up with something, even without John and his friend.

But history also provides plenty of examples of people who hear or read a prophecy and decide that they are the One or at least that It is Now. In my pre-teens and teens, there was an endless stream of media (books and movies) that declared it was indeed Now or at least Soon, and as noted above, this has a long history. But mass media turned it into something wholly other, and I think it’s arguable that contributed to plunge into fundamentalism that’s happened over the last few decades.

Anyway. Here’s John the Lonesome, getting the word of God without a buddy to write it down for him. Still not sure what I’m going to do with him, but maybe I’ll make him that buddy.