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.
The iconography of the findings is rich and diverse; in the Menaion icons the composition was sometimes presented in a brief variant, depicting the decapitated head lying on the platter. In the second half of the 17th century, this iconographic version became an independent composition, such as on an icon of The Head of St. John the Baptist from the Novoierusalimsky Monastery (1666, the State Moscow Kremlin Museum). In the 18th -19th centuries the decapitated head of John the Baptist was often reproduced in the Russian wooden sculpture..
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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