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Beheading of St. John the Baptist

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The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (alternate names: Decollation of Saint John the Baptist and Beheading of the Forerunner) is a holy day observed by various Christian churches which follow liturgical traditions. The day commemorates the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist.



Salome With the Head of John the Baptist (London), by Caravaggio, c. 1607.

The biblical account portrays the beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Herod Antipas.[1] According to the Synoptic Gospels, Herod had imprisoned John because he reproved Herod for divorcing his wife (Phasaelis), and unlawfully taking his brother Herod Philip I's wife, Herodias. On Herod's birthday, Herodias' daughter (traditionally named Salome) danced before the king and his guests. Her dancing pleased Herod so much that in his drunkenness he promised to give her anything she desired, up to half of his kingdom. When the daughter asked her mother what she should request, she was told to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Although Herod was appalled by the request, he reluctantly agreed and had John executed in the prison.

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus also relates in his Antiquities of the Jews that Herod killed John, stating that he did so, "lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his [John's] power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise), [so Herod] thought it best [to put] him to death." He further states that many of the Jews believed that the military disaster which fell upon Herod at the hands of Aretas his father-in-law (Phasaelis' father), was God's punishment for his unrighteous behaviour.[2]

Feast day

The liturgical commemoration of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist is almost as old as that commemorating his Nativity, which is one of the oldest feasts, if not the oldest feast, introduced into both the Eastern and Western liturgies to honor a saint.

The Roman Catholic Church celebrates the feast on August 29 as the "Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist" in the ordinary form and as "The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist" in the extraordinary form, or traditional Latin Mass.

The Church of England and many other national provinces of the Anglican Communion celebrate the feast on August 29. In the Church of England, the day is referred to as "The Beheading of John the Baptist."

The Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches also celebrate this feast on August 29. The day is always observed as a day of fasting, even if it falls on a Saturday or Sunday (in which case the fast is lessened, but never entirely abrogated). In some Orthodox cultures pious people will not eat food from a flat plate, use a knife , or eat food that is round in shape on this day.

In the Eastern Orthodox churches following the Julian Calendar - the Russian, Macedonian and Serbian Orthodox Churches, the feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist is celebrated on September 11. The day is always observed as a day of strict fasting.

The Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates the Decollation of St. John on Saturday of Easter Week.

The Syriac Orthodox, Indian Orthodox, and Syro-Malankara Catholic Churches commemorate the martyrdom on January 7.

Related feasts

E obretenie glavy Ioanna Predtechi. Konec XIX v. Rossiya

Icon of the Third Finding of the Head of John the Forerunner.

There are two other related feasts observed by Eastern Christians:

  • First and Second Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist (February 24). According to church tradition after the execution of John the Baptist, his disciples buried his body at Sebaste, but Herodius[clarification needed] took his severed head and buried it in a dung heap. Later, Saint Joanna, who was married to Herod's steward [3], secretly took his head and buried it on the Mount of Olives, where it remained hidden for centuries.
The First Finding occurred in the fourth century. The property on the Mount of Olives where the head was buried eventually passed into the possession of a government official who became a monk with the name of Innocent. He built a church and a monastic cell there. When he started to dig the foundation, the vessel with the head of John the Baptist was uncovered. But fearful that the relic might be abused by unbelievers, he hid it again in the same place it had been found. Upon his death the church fell into ruin and was destroyed.
The Second Finding occurred in the year 452. During the days of Constantine the Great, two monks on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem reportedly saw visions of John the Baptist, who revealed to them the location of his head. They uncovered the relic, placed it in a sack and proceeded home. Along the way they encountered an unnamed potter and gave him the bag to carry, not telling him what it was. The Forerunner appeared to him and ordered him to flee from the careless and lazy monks, with what he held in his hands. He did so and took the head home with him. Before his death he placed it in a container and gave it to his sister. After some time, a hieromonk by the name of Eustathius, an Arian, came into possession of it, using it to attract followers to his teaching. He buried the head in a cave, near Emesa. Eventually, a monastery was built at that place. In the year 452 St John the Baptist appeared to Archimandrite Marcellus of this monastery, and indicated where his head was hidden in a water jar buried in the earth. The relic was brought into the city of Emesa, and was later transferred to Constantinople.
  • Third Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist (May 25). The head was transferred to Comana of Cappadocia during a period of Muslim raids (about 820) and it was hidden in the ground during a period of iconoclastic persecution. When the veneration of icons was restored in 850, Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople (847-857) saw in a vision the place where the head of St John had been hidden. The patriarch communicated this to the emperor Michael III, who sent a delegation to Comana, where the head was found. Afterwards the head was again transferred to Constantinople, and here on May 25 it was placed in a church at the court.


St johns head

A head said to be John's, enshrined in Rome


St John's Shrine inside the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus.

According to ancient tradition, the burial-place of John the Baptist was at Sebastia near modern-day Nablus in the West Bank, and mention is made of his relics being honored there around the middle of the fourth century. The historians Rufinus and Theodoretus record that the shrine was desecrated under Julian the Apostate around 362, the bones being partly burned. A portion of the rescued relics were carried to Jerusalem, then to Alexandria, where on 27 May 395, they were laid in the basilica that was newly dedicated to the Forerunner on the former site of the temple of Serapis. The tomb at Sebaste continued, nevertheless, to be visited by pious pilgrims, and St. Jerome bears witness to miracles being worked there. Today, the tomb is housed in the Nabi Yahya Mosque ("John the Baptist Mosque").

What became of the head of John the Baptist is difficult to determine. Nicephorus[4] and Symeon Metaphrastes say that Herodias had it buried in the fortress of Machaerus (in accordance with Josephus). Other writers say that it was interred in Herod's palace at Jerusalem; there it was found during the reign of Constantine, and thence secretly taken to Emesa, in Phoenicia, where it was concealed, the place remaining unknown for years, until it was manifested by revelation in 453.

Over the centuries, there have been many discrepancies in the various legends and claimed relics throughout the Christian world. Several different locations claim to possess the severed head of John the Baptist. Among the various claimants are:[5]

  • In medieval times it was rumored that the Knights Templar had possession of the head, and multiple records from their Inquisition in the early 1300s make reference to some form of head worship.[6]
  • Some believe that it is buried in Turkish Antioch, or southern France.[5]
  • In 1881 The New York Times claimed that: The inmates of two rival French monasteries[which?][when?] used to exhibit, the one the the skull of John the Baptist 'when he was a boy', the other his cranium 'after he had become a man'.[7]

Numerous other relics of John the Baptist are also believed to exist, including the following:

  • According to tradition, Luke the Evangelist went to the city of Sebaste, from which he took the right hand of the Forerunner (the hand that baptized Jesus) and brought it to Antioch, his home city, where it performed miracles. It is reported that the relic would be brought out and shown to the faithful on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14). If the fingers of the hand were open, it was interpreted as a sign of a bountiful year, if the hand was closed it would be a poor harvest (September 1 was the beginning of the liturgical year and the harvest season).
  • On January 7, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfer of the Right Hand of the holy Forerunner from Antioch to Constantinople in 956 and the Miracle of Saint John the Forerunner against the Hagarines at Chios
  • In 1263 during the Sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders, the Frankish emperor Baldwin gave one bone from the wrist of Saint John the Baptist to Ottonus de Cichon, who in turn gave it to a Cistercian abbey in France.
  • In the year 1484 the right hand of the Forerunner was given away by the son of Sultan Bayezid II to the Knights of Malta on the island of Rhodes in order to gain their good-will. The Knights later transferred the relic to Malta. When the Russian emperor Paul I (1796-1801) became Grand Master of the Maltese Order, the right hand of the Baptist, together with other relics, were transferred in the year 1799 (because of the Napoleonic threat) from the island of Malta to the chapel of the Priory Palace[8] at Gatchina in Russia (this transfer is commemorated on October 12).

Depictions of the Salome - Herod - St. John the Baptist Bible story

Scenes from the events around the death of John were an extremely common subject in the treatment of John the Baptist in art, initially most often in small predella scenes, later as a subject for larger independent works. The following list does not attempt completeness, but includes many of the best known depictions in chronological order (to see each work, follow the link through the footnote):[10]

Michelangelo Caravaggio 021

The Beheading of St John, 1608, Valletta Co-Cathedral, Malta


  1. Matthew 14:1-12, Mark 6:14-29, Luke 9:7-9
  2. Flavius Josephus. Jewish Antiquities XVIII, v, 2.
  3. Luke 8:3
  4. Nicephorus, Ecclesiastical History I, ix. See Patrologia Graeca, cxlv.-cxlvii.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Lost Worlds: Knights Templar, July 10, 2006 video documentary on The History Channel, directed and written by Stuart Elliott
  6. Sean Martin, The Knights Templar: The History & Myths of the Legendary Military Order, 2005. ISBN 1-56025-645-1
  7. "Silly relic-worship". The New York Times: 10. 16 January 1881. Retrieved 2009-07-12. 
  8. Priory Palace
  9. St. Macarius Monastery
  10. [1]Web page titled "Links to images of Salome/Herod/the Death of John the Baptist" at The Text This Week Web site, accessed February 11, 2007

See also

External links

Beheading of St. John the Baptist
Preceded by
Rejection of Jesus
Ministry of Jesus
New Testament
Succeeded by
To bring a Sword
Ministry of Jesus

sr:Обретење главе светог Јована Крститеља

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