August 29th commemorates the martyrdom of the beheading of Saint John the Baptist. The narrative of St. John’s beheading has a rich tradition in Italian art, especially during the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Scenes of St. John’s death were also present during the medieval period and found most commonly in historiated initials of manuscripts.
One of the earliest illustrations of St. John’s martyrdom in a manuscript comes from the Codex Sinopensis (Sinope Gospels), which was possibly produced in Syria, Byzantine Palestine or Constantinople in the 6th century C.E. on red vellum. It is thought that the codex may be related to the Rossano Gospels, a Byzantine manuscript now housed at the Museo Diocesano in Rossano, Italy.
After his death, Saint John was buried at Sebaste, but during the reign of Julian the Apostate his tomb was desecrated 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), and S. Silvestro in Capite (Rome).
Medallion from Gospel of Luke, Bodleian Library, MS. Canon Bibl. Lat. 57, fol. 387r, Bologna.
Initial S with the Beheading of John the Baptist, Illuminated Missal, Princeton, Garrett 39, fol. 307r, Venice, 14th century.
Beheading of John the Baptist, Codex Sinopensis, Paris, BnF, Suppl. Grec. 1286, fol. 10v, 6th cent.
Initial L with the Beheading of John the Baptist, Choir book, London, BL, Add MS 71119D, Bologna, 1375-1400.
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.