John the Baptist is the last Old Testament prophet who introduced Jesus Christ as the Savior to the people of Israel. His other name – John the Forerunner – is meant to emphasize his specific role as forerunner or precursor of Jesus Christ. The narratives of his life and ministry are contained in a number of sources – in the four canonic gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, Flavius Josephus and early Christian apocripha.

The exceptional veneration of John the Baptist in the Christian countries affected the development of comprehensive and diverse iconography of the saint. According to canonical Gospels, John the Baptist was imprisoned for condemning Herod for marrying Herodias and for “all the other evil things he had done” (Luke, 3:19). But Herod didn’t want to kill John for he considered him a saint and listened to his teaching, fearing people who believed John to be a prophet. But at a feast on the occasion of his birthday, Herod announced in the presence of his courtiers and noble people from Galilee that he would fulfill any wish of Herodia’s daughter Salome who danced before the guests. At the instigation of her mother she asked for the head of John the Baptist to be delivered to her on a plate. This request was fulfilled, though Herod did not want to have John the Baptist executed.

The iconography of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist is derived from the early Byzantine era (a miniature from The Alexandria World Chronicle, State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, No 310/8, 4th – 6th centuries) and frescoes in the village Church of St. John the Baptist in the village of Çаvu?in, Cappadocia, Turkey (the mid – second half of the 7th century or the 8th – 9th centuries). In the post-iconoclastic period, the scenes portraying the execution of the saint grew in number.

The mid-Byzantine period saw the development of several iconographic versions of the scene of the Beheading of John the Baptist, which later gained broad circulation. The most traditional one is a depiction of John the Baptist kneeling before the executioner whose sword is raised over his head, the scene is set against a desert landscape. The next variant of the “Beheading” iconography depicted the execution, just carried out, with the saint’s head separated from the body from which flows the flood of blood; above the saint spread on the earth stands a soldier sheathing his sword. Other, rarer depictions of John the Baptist, portrayed him standing, but already beheaded, with his haloed head lying on the earth. The 11th – 14th centuries pictured John the Baptist before and after the execution: on one scene he is depicted kneeling before the executioner, patiently awaiting death, with his beheaded body lying nearby; other scene features Salome holding the decapitated head of the saint.

The medieval Russian icons of the Beheading of John the Baptist in the pre-Tartar period were created in the Byzantine tradition. Most widespread in Rus was a popular Byzantine iconographic variant depicting the kneeling figure of the Baptist with his hands tied in front awaiting the executioner to strike off his head with a sword raised over him (frescoes in the southern apse of the Nativity of the Theotokos Cathedral of the St. Anthony Monastery in Veliky Novgorod (1125); in the altar of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior of the Mirozhsky Monastery in Pskov (ca. 1140, renovated in the late 19th century); in the vestry of the Annunciation Church on Miachin in Veliky Novgorod (1189). In the 15th century, the Russian iconography of the Beheading of John the Baptist was complemented with a scene depicting the saint’s head inside a cave.

A 13th century Summary icon-painter’s guide provides the following description of the beheading scene: “На Предтече риза от влас велбужьих, руки связаны, тело его лежит в темнице, спекулатор стоит над ним гордым образом, в руце держит за власы главу Предтечеву, в другой руке меч обнаженный… Из главы и из тела Предтечева течет кровь и вода, темница об одних дверях, а около ея ограды все темное, понеже нощию было Усекновение… А в руке пишут свиток, а в нем написано: аз видех и свидетельствовах, се Агнец Божий, вземляй грехи мира, покайтеся, приближи бо ся Царство небесное, уже и секира при корени дерев лежит, всяко убо древо, еже не творит плода добра, посекаемо бывает и во огнь вметаемо”.

The feast day of John the Baptist is celebrated several times and is associated with different episodes from his life and veneration. July 7th (June 24th , the old style) – the Nativity of John the Baptist; September 11 (August 29th, the old style) – the Beheading of John the Baptist; October 6 (September 23rd, the old style) – the Conception of John the Baptist; January 20th (January 7th, the old style) – the Synaxis of John the Baptist; March 9th (February 24th, the old style) and June 7th (May 25th, the old style) – the Finding of John the Baptist’s Head.


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Zhanna G. Belik,

Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.

Olga E. Savchenko,

research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.