Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Beheading of John the Baptist in Tradition and Legend

(Andrea Solario)
From the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia:
The honour paid so early and in so many places to the relics of St. John the Baptist, the zeal with which many churches have maintained at all times their ill-founded claims to some of his relics, the numberless churches, abbeys, towns, and religious families placed under his patronage, the frequency of his name among Christian people, all attest the antiquity and widespread diffusion of the devotion to the Precursor. The commemoration of his Nativity is one of the oldest feasts, if not the oldest feast, introduced into both the Greek and Latin liturgies to honour a saint.... The celebration of the Decollation [Beheading] of John the Baptist, on 29 August, enjoys almost the same antiquity. (Charles Souvay)
Becoming of one of the greatest saints, the recipient of protodulia, John’s feasts are ancient and multiple. In older martyrologies, the Conception of the Forerunner is feasted on September 24 (the 23rd in the East). His Nativity is of course celebrated nine months later at Midsummer, June 24. The Orthodox also have more Johannine feasts for the transferring of various relics.

St. Mark’s Gospel, strangely, has the longer account of St. John’s death:
Herod himself had sent and arrested John and put him in prison, in chains, for love of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married; because John had told Herod, “It is wrong for thee to take thy brother’s wife.” Herodias was always plotting against him, and would willingly have murdered him, but could not, because Herod was afraid of John, recognizing him for an upright and holy man; so that he kept him carefully, and followed his advice in many things, and was glad to listen to him.
And now came a fitting occasion, upon which Herod gave a birthday feast to his lords and officers, and to the chief men of Galilee. Herodias’ own daughter came in and danced, and gave such pleasure to Herod and his guests that the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever thou wilt, and thou shalt have it;” he even bound himself by an oath, “I will grant whatever request thou makest, though it were a half of my kingdom.” Thereupon she went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” And she answered, “The head of John the Baptist.” With that, she hastened into the king’s presence and made her request; “My will is, she said, that thou shouldst give me the head of John the Baptist; give it me now, on a dish.” 
And the king was full of remorse, but out of respect to his oath and to those who sat with him at table, he would not disappoint her. So he sent one of his guard with orders that the head should be brought on a dish. This soldier cut off his head in the prison, and brought it on a dish, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. When John’s disciples heard of it, they came and carried off his body, and laid it in a tomb. (Knox trans.)
(Gustave Moreau)
The Golden Legend speaks of the divine retribution wrought by the head of John the Baptist:
And in like wise as Herod was punished that beheaded Saint John, and Julian the apostate that burnt his bones, so was Herodias which counselled her daughter to demand the head of Saint John. And the maid that required it died right ungraciously and evil, and some say that Herodias was condemned in exile, but she was not, ne she died not there, but when she held the head between her hands she was much joyful, but by the will of God the head blew in her visage, and she died forthwith. This is said of some, but that which is said tofore, that she was sent in exile with Herod, and miserably ended her life, thus say saints in their chronicles and it is to be holden. And as her daughter went upon the water she was drowned anon, and it is said in another chronicle that the earth swallowed her in, all quick, and may be understood as of the Egyptians that were drowned in the Red Sea, so the earth devoured her.
There are multiple claimants to the relic of John’s skull, including San Silvestro in Rome (photographed above). The full collection of these skulls might fill a small closet shelf. The Legend again has many stories about the miraculous head throughout the ages. His bones were desecrated and burned by Julian the Apostate, but multiple pieces have survived to the modern day.


  1. I have noted the eroticization of John the Baptist's death in later art. The older paintings are quite affecting and sober. Later, Victorian cheesecake seems to have taken over. Musically, you have Strauss' "Salome."

    1. Salome has gradually taken center stage in depictions of the Baptist's decollation. In the older illuminated manuscript shown above, she is more fully clothed than a homeschooling mom. I recall some recent film/television adaptations focusing quite a lot on her erotic dancing, as well.