Beheading of John the Baptist: Christians recall Salome’s deadly request

Painting of man with sword raise over head, another man bent over with halo around his head

An Eastern Orthodox Christian depiction of the Beheading of John the Baptist. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, AUGUST 29: A vengeful mother, a drunken king and a foolish promise formed the fatal trio that led to one of history’s most infamous events, commemorated today: the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.

Though no sources reveal the martyrdom’s specific date, it is estimated between 28 CE and 32 CE. Observed today by both Eastern and Western Christians, this solemn remembrance is almost as old as the feast for John’s birth—which is, markedly, one of the oldest feasts of the Church. (Read more at American Catholic or from the Orthodox Church in America.) Eastern Orthodox Christians keep a strict, solemn fast today, and in some countries, devotees refuse to eat from a flat plate, to use a knife or to consume any type of food that is round—all, of course, objects symbolic of the tools used in the beheading.

A SEDUCTIVE DANCE
AND A HEAD ON A PLATTER

Gospels and other ancient sources begin today’s story with Herod, a sub-king of Judea under the Roman Empire. When Herod divorced his wife and unlawfully took his brother’s wife, Herodias, it was John the Baptist alone who had the courage to rebuke Herod for his actions. Herod threw John in prison. During a raucous birthday party for Herod, Herodias’ daughter, Salome, danced seductively before the king and his guests. Drunken and entranced by the dance, Herod promised Salome anything she wanted. (Wikipedia has details.)

After a quick consultation with her mother, Salome requested John the Baptist’s head on a plate. Though fearful of wrath, Herod kept his promise, and had John the Baptist executed. What became of John’s head is unclear because, today, many sacred sites claim to hold a portion of John the Baptist.

Following the beheading, traditional stories hold that both Herod and Salome suffered terrible fates. Salome fell through an icy river and died: her body was trapped below the water, while her head was above the ice, in a stance eerily similar to the beheading she had been responsible for. Or, at least, so the stories go.

IN THE NEWS:
SPEAKING OUT AGAINST CHRISTIAN PERSECUTIONS

As John the Baptist spoke out against the unlawful ways of King Herod, so Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, is asking: “Why is the world silent while Christians are being slaughtered in the Middle East and Africa?” (The Christian Post and The Christian Century delve further into this issue.)

In a stirring piece recently published in the New York Times, Lauder poses a question for justice, asking everyone from the United Nations to celebrities why no one is taking a stand. Though Jews and Christians don’t share everything, they do share a Bible and core beliefs, points out Lauder—and the Jews, who “understand all too well what can happen when the world is silent”—are speaking out, that “This campaign of death must be stopped.”

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.

Feast of John the Baptist: East and West come together to celebrate the Forerunner of Jesus

An Eastern Orthodox Christian interpretation of the Nativity of John. Note Zechariah in the lower right corner, writing, "His name is John." Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

An Eastern Orthodox Christian interpretation of the Nativity of John. Note Zechariah in the lower right corner, writing, “His name is John.” Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, JUNE 24: An unparalleled human birth is celebrated across the Eastern and Western Christian Church today, on the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Or, in Eastern churches and communities around the world, many call this the Nativity of St. John the Forerunner.

Wikipedia has more on the Nativity. And, Catholics can find all of the Bible readings for the Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist online now, thanks to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Virtually all saints are commemorated on the day of their death—the day of entrance into heaven—except for St. John the Baptist and Jesus’s mother Mary. Christians also mark Jesus’s Nativity. But these Nativity feasts are exceptional customs intended for figures the Christian church traditionally believes were born without sin.

John also holds special status because the celebration of his birth has such ancient roots. Unlike many newer Christian holidays, John’s birth has been celebrated since the early centuries of Christianity. Why? In part because his birth is detailed in the Christian Bible. His birth became a first step in foretelling the coming of Jesus.

Care to read the entire story? You will find it only in the Gospel of Luke and, while the Catholic readings listed above contain part of the gospel story, here is the entire account which extends from Luke 1 verse 5 through 80. The passage contains some of the most beautiful and widely repeated lines in the New Testament, including Mary’s own hymn of praise.

AN ASCETIC FORETELLS THE KINGDOM

Years passed, and John became an ascetic in the desert before announcing the coming of the Kingdom, calling all people to undergo a reformation. John announced his purpose as being solely to prepare the way for a Messiah. Hundreds came to the banks of the Jordan River, including Jesus, whom John immediately recognized. John sent all of his followers to Jesus, insisting that “He (Jesus) must increase; I must decrease.” Some interpret John’s statement as indicating the cycles of the sun and, therefore, cuing its proximity to summer solstice; Augustine explained that John’s observance falls close to the summer solstice because Jesus’ falls close to the winter solstice. Both are festivals of light, and bonfires on St. John’s Eve have been a popular custom for millennia.

PAGANS & CHRISTIANS & St. John’s Fire

If you read Danish, or simply want to see the full-size bonfire photo, check out coverage of this year's St. John Eve in the Danish newspaper Borsen.

If you read Danish, or simply want to see the full-size bonfire photo, check out coverage of this year’s St. John Eve in the Danish newspaper Borsen.

In many communities around the world, St. John’s Eve still is greeted with St. John’s Fire. If that reminds you of pagan customs associated with the Solstice, then you’ve got a talent for cultural anthropology. Think about the ancient origins of the St. John the Baptist Nativity holiday, and its placement on a fixed date close to the Solstice, and the resulting Christian-Pagan friction across Europe is not surprising.

In a recent Scientific American column, Maria Konnikova reports on the diverse array of customs surrounding the Solstice. Among them is St. John’s Eve and St. John’s Fire. She writes: “With the rise of Christianity and accompanying threat to pagan traditions, the summer solstice became celebrated in many parts of Europe as the day of St. John the Baptist—St. John’s Eve in Denmark, the Feast of St. John in France, the festival of St. John the Baptist in Spain, Ivan Kupala Day in Russia.”

Across the U.S., customs vary widely so check your local news media. A news report from northern Kentucky says that Episcopal churches in that region plan to combine their Monday evening liturgies for St. John’s Nativity at a central location. In California, the San Juan Bautista Mission is combining St. John’s Nativity with a fiesta to recall the early Hispanic settlers who built the mission. Of course, you will find the most lively observances in parishes named for St. John the Baptist.

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(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, interfaith news and cross-cultural issues.)