Snakes on Icons: Often we observe snakes or sea monsters under the feet of Christ in the icon of the Theophany, in the Jordan river . Why are they there, what do they mean?

Bishop John’s Answer:

What is the meaning of the snakes that we see under His feet in the icon of Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan?

You ask an interesting question about the traditional icon of the Lord’s baptism in the River Jordan often called a Theophany. All icons are meant to teach us a cherished lesson of the faith. Icons are didactic. At the Lord’s baptism, His divinity was made clear. The Lord is fully God and fully human. The Holy Spirit came upon Him in the form a dove and the Father’s voice was heard to say: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased. Hear Him.”

The snakes (dragons) that you notice under the feet of the Lord as He stands in the waters of the Jordan River are symbols of demons and Satan. The Lord crushes them under His feet. We remember that we are saved from the domination and dominion of Satan when we are baptized in imitation of the Lord. In the baptismal ceremony, the priest prays an exorcism over the person about to be baptized and prays that the Lord will “rebuke the unclean spirits and crush them beneath the feet of the newly baptized”. When blessing the waters of baptism, the priest prays again, “Lord, we confess (acknowledge) Your power. You did walk with men and did bless the waters of the River Jordan (at Your baptism) by sending down your Holy Spirit who crushed the heads of the dragons (demons) who lurked there (and elsewhere in the world).”

We are reminded of the great transformation that occurs in us when we are baptized. We are claimed by Christ and are no longer under the power and dominion of Satan. We are sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and made living temples of the Most High God. We are changed and empowered by grace, and, if we cooperate with God’s grace, we are assured victory over Satan and his demons. You noticed an important lesson depicted in this icon. It is good to notice the rich lessons that are written by the hand of the icon painter for our nourishment and reflection.