Beheading of St. John the Baptist: Christian tradition is a feast for artists

Man on floor with man above him holding knife, woman nearby holding golden platter, in cement fortress

Caravaggio’s ‘Beheading of Saint John the Baptist’ is one of his most important works. (Photos with this story are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

THURSDAY, AUGUST 29: The life of St. John the Baptist, forerunner of Jesus, came to a disastrous end nearly 2,000 years ago, when—tradition holds—the plain-talking prophet collided with the ruthless King Herod Antipas. Today, the church calendars of nearly 2 billion Catholic and Orthodox Christians recall the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist—but the date generally is not observed by the world’s millions of Protestants.

Depicted by renowned artists through the centuries, St. John’s beheading remains a sacred mystery for Christians. Several countries claim to hold his relics. Just last year, Pope Benedict XVI added to the conflicting claims by declaring that the Baptist’s head had, indeed, been discovered and was enshrined in Rome.

ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST: THE BEHEADING STORY

The painter Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) was one of many artists drawn to the sensuality of the beheading story. Moreau created a series of paintings on this theme, including this one in which St. John's head mysteriously appears to haunt Salome.

The painter Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) was one of many artists drawn to the sensuality of the beheading story. Moreau created a series of paintings on this theme, including this one in which St. John’s head mysteriously appears to haunt Salome.

For many years, John was an ascetic preacher and led a ministry in baptizing people along the Jordan River—where Christian tradition says he encountered his cousin Jesus. It’s a crucial scene in the New Testament, revealing Jesus’s divinity. But, the end of John’s life became almost as famous as his experience with Jesus.

St. John was imprisoned by King Herod Antipas because he dared to speak out against the monarch’s marriage to a woman who had been his half-brother’s wife. Herod Antipas was Jewish and, at the same time, he was serving as the Roman-approved ruler of the Jewish homeland. John’s rebuke of the king was for violating Jewish rules about marriage—but the issue of John’s challenge was larger than a point of Jewish law. The ancient historian Josephus noted that John’s preaching made Herod Antipas worry about the potential for Jewish rebellion.

Traditional versions of the beheading story say: On Herod’s birthday, a raucous party took place. The king’s step daughter—who generations of artists and writers have embodied in the temptress Salome—performed a sultry dance. The drunken king promised Salome anything she would like—and Salome, after a quick consultation with her mother, asked for St. John the Baptist’s head on a golden platter. Herod agreed but also was terrified. The people adored John, after all, and Herod feared divine punishment.

And, the tale keeps growing: For a person not clearly identified in the Bible, Salome winds up with a dramatic biography! In one version of her life story, she eventually falls through the ice while crossing a river, beheading herself in the process. Salome’s supposed sensuality was a magnet for writers such as Oscar Wilde, musicians from Richard Strauss to Andrew Lloyd Webber, and artists from the exotic Gustave Moreau to Aubrey Beardsley.

Want to explore these Salomes further? Read The Spirit can recommend two unusual DVD versions of what now amounts to the Salome legend. First, a 2011 production of Richard Strauss’s Salome, based on Oscar Wilde’s version of the story, stars the celebrated Finnish soprano Karita Mattila. If you want to look back a century at the way Salome was portrayed among artists of that era, a restored version of the 1923 silent film Salome is available via Amazon. That film featured the then-popular actress Alla Nazimova, who had starred on stage in Ibsen and Checkov plays. Costumes for that 1923 version were designed by the equally luminous star Natacha Rambova, now best remembered as Rudoph Valentino’s last wife.

CARAVAGGIO’S PAINTING
AND THE KNIGHTS OF MALTA

The oil painting of John’s beheading (at top today) ranks among Italian artist Caravaggio’s greatest works. Completed in 1608, the work was commissioned by the Knights of Malta. The scene’s details were not inspired by the Bible but instead by the fictional, medieval collection of tales known as The Golden Legend.

For many years, the painting also hid a secret that was not revealed until a restoration in the 1950s: the signature of Caravaggio. (Learn more from Wikipedia.) The only work to contain his signature, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, depicts a blood-red signature by Caravaggio, shaped as blood spilling from the throat of the victim.

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