By Martina Bollini

29th August commemorates the martyrdom by beheading of Saint John the Baptist. According to the Gospels, Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch (ruler of one fourth of the Holy Land) and governor of Galilee, had John imprisoned in the fortress of Machaerus. The Baptist had publicly denounced Herod for leaving his lawful wife in favor of Herodias, his brother’s wife. Swayed by Herodias, Herod was desirous to put him to death, yet he feared the people, who estemeed him as a prophet.

On his birthday, Herod gave a banquet, during which Salome (Herodias’ own daughter) danced before him and charmed him to the point that he promised to grant her any wish. Salome, prompted by her vengeful mother, asked for the head of John the Baptist. Herod reluctantly obliged, so John was beheaded in prison and his head was delivered to the young girl on a plate.

Saint John was buried at Sebaste, but during the reign of Julian the Apostate his tomb was desacrated  and his relics were dispersed. Today, the head of the Saint is claimed by several churches, among them Amiens, Nemours, St-Jean d’Angeli (France), S. Silvestro in Capite (Rome).

Masaccio, Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, 1426, tempera su tavola, Musei statali, Berlin (from the  dismantled Pisa altarpiece).

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Arrest of the Baptist, 1427, gilded bronze, Baptistery of St John, Siena.

Benozzo Gozzoli, The Feast of Herod and the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1461–2, tempera on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Giovanni Bellini, Head of the Baptist, 1464-68, tempera on wood, Musei Civici, Pesaro

Andrea Solario, Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist, first half of 16th century, oil on panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Caravaggio, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1608, oil on canvas, St. John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta

Guido Reni, Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, c. 1639/42, oil on canvas, Chicago, Art Institute

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