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 apocrypha.

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). 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. According to the Gospel, John’s head was carried to Herodias on the platter. (Matthew, 14: 11). Fearful that the saint may rise from the dead, she put his head in a vessel and secretly buried it in one of Herod’s estates, not wishing that the head and the body be buried together. According to one version, Saint Joanna, who was married to Herod’s steward, secretly took the head and buried it.

The decapitated head of John the Baptist was discovered three times: in the 4th century, in the mid-5th century and in ca. 850. Presumably in the reign of Emperor Constantine I (306-337) it was discovered by two monks who came to Jerusalem to worship the holy places. John the Baptist had appeared to them in a dream and revealed to them the location of his head. Later the head was transferred to Emesa where it was buried in a cave and found for the second time in 452 AD by the abbot of a monastery, archimandrite Marcellus and hidden in a church by the bishop Uranium of Edessa. The head was transferred over and over to different places. During the Arab invasion it was reburied and miraculously recovered in the mid-9th century. According to tradition, Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople had a vision during a night prayer that revealed to him the location of the head. Afterwards the head was transferred to Constantinople. According to ancient tradition, the head of John the Baptist had been crushed (ca. 5th c.), so the reports of its findings are controversial.

The iconography of the three findings of the head of John the Baptist is very rich and diverse. The earliest iconography featured the third finding of the head of St. John. It exists in several versions each depicting different episodes of the finding: two laymen digging the head out in a black cave; the procession transferring the head of St. John, led by an emperor and the censing patriarch and his suite, a liturgy performed over the honorable head. In the 9th century, the third finding iconography served as a base for developing the iconography of the first and second findings: two monks unearthing the head with spades in a cave (or one of them, knelt, holds a vessel with the head), or the head is lying on the ground, with three men in long monastic robes holding lit candles and watching the head with awe. In the late Middle Ages era, brief hagiographic cycles of John the Baptist commonly featured generalized images of the findings, such as a border scene showing two monks unearthing the saint’s head in a cave.

The Russian iconography of the late Middle Ages is noted for its own tradition of depicting the findings of the head of John the Baptist. The most remarkable among them are the monuments of the second half of the 16th century, such as a Yaroslavl icon of St. John the Forerunner Angel of the Desert, with 20 Life Scenes from St. Nicholas Church (1551, the Yaroslavl Museum-Reserve), in which the history of the findings is featured as three episodes: the first border scene depicts sleeping monks, with John the Baptist leaning over them and telling the place where his head is hidden; the second scene shows two monks unearthing the head with spades; and the third episode again shows one or two sleeping monks; under them, in the cave, is the head of John the Forerunner in a halo, with St. John leaning over the sleeping men.

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

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.


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