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Saint John the Baptist

The Saint John Altar

Rogier Van der Weyden (1399-1464). Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie – Berlin.

The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1515-1569). Szépmúvészeti Múzeum – Budapest. 1566.

Saint John the Baptist preaching in the Desert

Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889). Musée Fabre. Montpellier. 1850.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist

Guido Reni (1575-1642). The Art Institute of Chicago – Chicago. 1639-1640.

Luke presents a quite detailed story about the birth of John the Baptist, about his preaching and his relations to Jesus. He tells little of John’s death however. He merely mentions a few words when he talks of Herod’s puzzlement because the tetrarch thought that John had reappeared: ‘John? I beheaded him. So, who is this I hear such reports about’? More accounts of the death of John the Baptist are given in Marc and Matthew.

We can follow the story of the Gospels with the altarpiece on John the Baptist made by Rogier van der Weyden. This altarpiece contains three panels. Looking at the altarpiece, the left panel tells about the birth of John. The middle panel shows the baptism of Jesus and the left panel depicts John’s gruesome death.

Zechariah, John’s father, was a priest who served in the temple. He was married to Elisabeth. The couple was childless and both Elisabeth and Zechariah were advanced in years. Zechariah was burning incense in the sanctuary, when the angel Gabriel appeared to announce him the birth of a son: ‘your wife Elisabeth is to bear you a son and you shall name him John’. This son ‘would prepare for the Lord a people fit for him’ G38 . Zechariah did not believe these words, so Gabriel told Zechariah that he would be silenced and lose his power of speech until John’s birth. And indeed, Elisabeth became pregnant and gave birth to a son some months before Mary. It happened that eight days after his birth they came to circumcise the child. They wanted to call the child after his father, as was the custom in the family. But Elisabeth told them to call the child John. This was a serious matter. Zechariah was still dumb, but he took a writing tablet and indeed also wrote ‘His name is John’.

Rogier Van Der Weyden chose one of these moments for the left panel of the altarpiece. Elisabeth in still in her bed, which is made up by a servant because lady visitors are coming in. The circumcision seems to be over however, because the baby wears a white band low on his belly. Mary, who earlier already visited Elisabeth, holds the baby John. Zechariah is writing John’s name on a tablet.

The middle panel of the John the Baptist altar that is shown is the baptism of Jesus in the waters of the river Jordan. Luke writes that while Jesus was at prayer, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in a physical form, like a dove. A voice came from heaven saying: ‘You are my Son; today have I fathered you’. Rogier the painter has combined both events: the baptism and the apparition of the Holy Spirit. Also the famous words of God are written around the dove, coming out of God’s mouth: ‘Hic est filius meus dilectus in quo michi bene complacui ipsum audite’ or ‘this is my beloved Son in whom I take delight, listen to him’.

The right panel shows the death of John. Herod the tetrarch had married Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. John had told Herod that it was forbidden by the law of the Jews to have one’s brother’s wife. Herodias was furious with John for this and wanted to kill him, but she was not able to do so because Herod was in awe of John, knowing him to be a good and upright man. However, later on Herodias gave a banquet for Herod’s birthday and let her daughter Salome dance for the tetrarch. Salome delighted Herod so much, that he swore an oath to Salome: ‘Ask me anything you like and I will give it to you’. Salome went to her mother who urged her to ask the head of John the Baptist. The King was distressed, but dared not to break his word. He sent for a guard and had John beheaded in prison. The head was presented to Herodias.

In Rogier’s right panel the guard holds John’s head. John’s body is lying on the stairs leading to the cellar prison. A richly clad Salome receives the head. Salome and the guard avert their eyes of such a treacherous act, making the emotions quite clear to the viewers. The big, ugly sword and the blood flowing amply and dramatically out of John’s neck underscore this. In the background one can see the banquet for Herod. Herodias can finally take revenge. She is really a very evil woman; although John is dead and Salome brings her the plate, Herodias needs to pick at the head with a knife.

All these scenes are depicted with the smallest details so typical for Flemish Gothic painting of the fifteenth century. The figures are dignified, expressionless, unreal, and unworldly as expected of northern religious art. But admire the grace in the figures, the wonderful colours and the realism of the scenes. Van der Weyden displays a splendid skill in the play of shadows on the draperies and on the cloaks of the figures. Red dominates in the scenes, as Van der Weyden was maybe fascinated by the red horror of John the Baptist’s death.

The representation of spirituality prevailed in this art. Thus, saints could not be shown in human emotion. Saints were figures that were transcended. Rogier Van Der Weyden was a master of detail, as we can see in the medieval bedroom in the left panel, the landscape in the middle behind Jesus or the town scene in the left panel. Rogier became a storyteller in this altarpiece and varied the backgrounds and the stories.

This aspect is strengthened by the many sculptures and half reliefs carved in the stone arches above the main figures. The twelve apostles are thus shown, two by two from left to right: James the Lesser and Philip, Thomas and Matthew, Peter and Andreas, the brothers James and John, Paul and Bartholomew, Thaddeus and Matthias. Each arch bears six half reliefs. The left arch tells first about the annunciation of Gabriel to Zechariah, how Zechariah leaves the temple unable to speak, further the engagement of Joseph and Maria, the annunciation to Mary, the visitation of Mary to Elisabeth and the birth of Christ. In the first scene of the middle arch, Zechariah predicts the future of John, John is shown preaching in the desert, and John baptises Pharisees and Sadducees. Three scenes of the temptations of Christ in the desert follow these. In the right arch then, priests and Levites are questioning John. In the next half-reliefs John indicates Jesus as being the Messiah, John scolds Herod for his unlawful marriage, John is thrown in prison, John is visited by young men while in prison and finally, Salome dances at the table of Herod. Between the first painted sculpture and the last, John’s life unfolds.

John the Baptist was a figure that much appealed to the masses of the church, almost as much as Jesus. John’s life was adventurous and filled with legends of old. Medieval stories abounded and many relics filled the churches of Western Europe, most of them probably falsifications. For a figure like the Baptist, most important were these very many stories so that Van der Weyden was obliged to show as many as he possibly could. He solved the issue by relegating many images to the grisaille sculptures in the arches of the three panels. Van der Weyden’s panels bear the various scenes so that the wonderfully painted altarpiece could not only be admired but also used to explain the life of the Baptist. The altarpiece thus also had educational value and Van d r Weyden combined the three pain scenes in bright colours and intricate detail with the smaller grisaille drawings. This is a great example of Late Medieval storytelling in a church tradition that was in line with earlier Romanesque habits.

Pieter Bruegel

The most important acts of John are the baptism of Christ, but also his many preachings. Especially Luke underscores the preachings of John and John’s naming Jesus Christ as the Messiah: ‘Someone is coming who is more powerful than me, and I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals’. Pieter Bruegel the Elder has made a picture of the preachings of John the Baptist. The result is stunningly different from Rogier's panels. But one still senses the powerful drive to tell stories of the northern painters. Rogier Van Der Weyden was born in the Walloon town of Tournai, but he painted in the tradition of the early Flemish Primitives. Bruegel was born in Limburg close to Holland, but like Rogier he came to the Duchy of Brabant and worked in Brussels.

Everybody has come to listen to what interesting John has to say. This is not just hearing a religious speech; the scene is one of entertainment, as if we were on a Flemish kermis in the country. You have just as in real life really to search for John, since so many people are around him. The people are young and old, female and men, rich and poor. Soldiers are there and peasant women, children and travellers. Even truth Sayers use the occasion to earn a dime so they read hands of the credulous. Look at the variety of dresses and the variety of the faces. Bruegel also knew how to paint landscapes: one unfolds to the right.

There are so many people in this picture of Bruegel, that the message of the preachings is lost in the crowd. This was a very strange and new message then, contrary to the true meaning of the church. Bruegel had brought religious painting one step further in the evolution. His painting is an example of a religious theme that has been reduced to an excuse for a landscape and genre painting. The religious theme disappears in the figures as if Bruegel wanted to say that this particular event of the Gospels was not that important after all. Far more imposing was the movement of the crowds, the people that have assembled. We know of these gatherings of people also in our own times. People spontaneously came to the streets in the old Soviet countries to announce the demise of Communist dictatorship. The global curiosity and the silent gathering of the people are forces that are impossible to stop. The curiosity is menacing. Crowds always create feelings of oppression and latent danger. This feeling also radiates from Bruegel’s picture.

Saint John the Baptist is a strange figure in the New Testament. Various authors have presented this Saint as some of a theological issue. The New Testament sees no issue since it explains how John’s coming before Jesus was all ordained from long before by God. John was to prepare the ways of Jesus. But John was the first to preach the new teaching. He had a following, which modern investigators have proven to be of a sect of the Essenes. The Essenes were one of the priestly castes of Israel, newt to the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The New Testament talks often in denigrating terms of these latter groups, but never mentions the Essenes. What happened? Did John found a new Essene movement that Jesus only took over later and brought to its logical extreme thus founding Christendom? Scholars who do not believe in the divine design of the events of Jesus’s life certainly see John the Baptist not just as a precursor but as the real founder of the new movement of Judaism that would lead to Christendom. Then John would maybe have been greater than Jesus. Modern writers have exploited that controversy. They claim that sects and secret societies existed that may have proven more devotion to John than to Jesus.

The stories of these sects are often linked to the Hospitaller Knights Order of Saint John the Baptist. This Order was really founded in 1099 by the overseer of the Christian hospital of Jerusalem. Comparable orders may have been in existence since the sixth century, but the order was then newly established. The Order had as its first goal to tend to the sick pilgrims and to manage and protect the hospital of Jerusalem, but it soon also became an order that fought for Christendom in the Near Orient. When Sultan Saladin took Jerusalem in 1187 the Knights of Saint John first settled in 1191 in Acca, which they called Saint John of Acre. Then when also this town fell to the Muslims, the headquarters of the order was transferred to Lemisso on the island of Cyprus. That happened in 1291. In 1309 the Hospitaller Knights conquered Rhodos and established their headquarters there. Much of the wealth of the forbidden Templar Order came to the Hospitaller Order, and maybe with that treasure came some of the mysteries connected with the Templars since these last performed rites on secret relics. In 1522 the Order of Saint John was once again obliged to abandon to leave their headquarters. They went to Crete, then to Sicily and finally obtained in 1530 the Island of Malta from Emperor Charles V. Malta’s capital was named after the Grand Master of the order, La Valletta. Caravaggio painted another Grand Master there, Alof de Wignacourt, in the beginning of the seventeenth century. Napoleon Bonaparte attacked the Knights of Malta and Grand Master Hompesh capitulated to the French armies in 1798. But that was not the end of the order. The Hospitaller Knights moved to Saint Petersburg for the Russian Tsar Paul had become its Grand Master in 1798 too. From Russia the seat of the Hospitallers moved to Catania in 1821, to Ferrara in 1825 and remains now since 1834 in Rome. An order that has been almost a thousand years in existence has known wealth and power, and that still claims John the Baptist as its patron saint cannot but have been the subject of mysterious tales.

Pieter Bruegel did not doubt the New Testament. It is difficult to ascertain however whether Bruegel wanted to indicate with the feelings of oppression and danger of the crowds support for John and thus for Jesus, or refusal of him. One would opt for support, but John has disappeared in the crowd and does not throne nor guide the people. The ambiguity remains. But this is the ambiguity of everyday life in which the message of Jesus and John the Baptist are not in the minds of the crowds. John and Jesus do not interfere in this. Who does not search for them will not find them. Thus a simple picture bears a universal, fundamental lesson of Christian religion.

Alexandre Cabanel

Alexandre Cabanel started studying drawing already in 1834, merely eleven years old, at the Academy of Fine Arts of Montpellier. In 1839 he won a price in his town and that allowed him to go to Paris, where he continued to study painting from 1840 on. He tried several times to win the ‘Prix de Rome’ of the French Académie, which would have allowed him to stay for five years in Rome. He succeeded only the third time, in 1845, although he came in only second after Léon Bénouville, but being anyway allowed to travel to Rome and work at the French Academy’s school in the Villa Medici.

Alexandre Cabanel’s painting ‘Saint John the Baptist preaching in the Desert’ dates from 1850, the year that Pope Pius X could return to Rome. The year before, the army of the self-proclaimed Roman Republic occupied Rome and the Villa Medici, which was the palace of the French Academy in Rome. This French Academy was one of the many such schools operated in Rome by European countries, all more or less assembled not so far from the villa Borghese. The British, Rumanian and Belgians had eventually academies in Rome on the French example and sent promising young painters to study Italian art and to learn from the splendid light of Rome. Alexandre Cabanel was in the Villa Medici in 1850. When the villa was occupied in 1849 by the Roman army, the artists had to go to Florence for a while, so for two to three months the students had also been immersed in the wealth of Tuscan art amassed in Florence. Cabanel was much impressed by the power of Michelangelo’s David. He would not stay in Rome after 1850. He returned to Paris in 1851 and met success somewhat later in France’s capital; Napoleon II, the new French emperor, supported him until the debacle of 1870 when during the French-German war the emperor was defeated, and imprisoned by the German army. Napoleon III had to abdicate. Cabanel then travelled to Italy, to Florence and to Venice. In 1878 he was appointed a professor at the Roman Academy of Fine Arts.

Alexandre Cabanel’s painting of John the Baptist was sent to the Salon, the official exhibition of Paris in 1850. It was bought rapidly by the town of Montpellier, where Cabanel was born in 1823. Alexandre Cabanel was still a student of the Academy when he made his ‘The Preaching of John the Baptist in the Desert’ in Rome; he was only twenty-seven years old, but his picture was already remarkable.

A great power shows in Cabanel’s picture. This is not a narrative picture; the viewer is overpowered by the force of John the Baptist. The man is formidable and he fills the frame. He is still a young man but he has strong, mature muscles. He has a hairless, well-sculptured breast, long elegant but wiry legs with the muscles of an athlete runner and arms like of a stone-breaker. He is a wild man, with unkempt hair of an obsessed, as of an animal. He is clad only in animal skins and he lived in the desert. But he has only a small beard and the thin moustaches of the intellectual. He is intelligent but possessed, with devouring black eyes and the cries out his message with fervour, his mouth open and desperate. We hear him call out loud, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’. This is the John of Matthew, the man that called Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers. John spoke of precursors only as powerful as himself, of Abraham. He was the voice that cried in the desert. He preached of repentance through baptism, against extortion and intimidation, for charity and sharing.

The desert is devoid of everything human, of everything living. There are but the sand and rocks and the sky in the desert. So Alexandre Cabanel did not show the landscape: it stops low behind under John, so that the conjuring figure all the more commands the scene as he is set against the blue sky. John sits before the heavens in an epic way, so that he stands before the vastness of the cosmos. He sits on imposing rocks and he cannot but entirely dominate his audience. Cabanel therefore makes the man on the right incline his elderly, grey head to the ground, in acceptance if the Baptist’s grandeur and of his menacing message. The artist showed John the Baptist entirely, but he merely suggests the bystanders. None of the people around John are shown in full inside the frame.

To the left, Cabanel placed a young boy in white robes and as here we see a long, thin cross carrying the scroll with the words ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’, we cannot but suppose that Cabanel showed the young Jesus here, in trance and admiration for the one that truly started the Christian religion even though now and in the Bible the Baptist is considered merely ad being the precursor of Christ. It was John the Baptist who first said the words, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’. John was not a lamb, he was a lion of the desert and thus Cabanel depicted him. It could be something of a sacrilege for Christian theologists to see how formidable John began to preach, before Jesus, the new religion, while Jesus was still so young. But this was the vision of Cabanel, the artist.

Alexandre Cabanel’s painting is of course a marvellous, imposing image. It is not only a painting that is meticulously drawn with enormous and brilliant talent, painted with exquisite mastery of fine, harmonious colours and excellent lines. It is also an intelligent and forceful picture made by a man – still young – filled with strong and new emotions, dedicated to epic grandeur, to the cult of man. This grandeur of man was of course very much a Florentine idea but was most of all also the inspiration of the French neo-classical trend of painting that had come into its own with Jacques-Louis David and his pupil Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Ingres would be the director of the villa Medici from 1835 to 1841. Alexandre Cabanel’s John the Baptist is an eminently neo-classic picture, late of trend but of the trend anyway. It has the frugality of decoration of classicism, as well as its depiction of but one important personage in the main theme. It has the epic, overt expression of emotions in a way that promises a maximum impact on the viewer. ‘John the Baptist Preaching in the Desert’ really hits the viewer in a most Romantic way. It is very realistically painted and all details are masterly rendered. It nevertheless manipulates the natural and the imitation of reality; it subjugates nature and employs it to the aims of the emotions of epic and force. John the Baptist preaches, conjures, orders, calls for the power of a revengeful God. He points to the heaven with his right hand and commands to grasp God’s Law with the gesture of his right hand. Alexandre Cabanel made of John the formidable, fanatic, obsessed man of the bible, a man that could only come to a dramatic end.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist

The Decapitation of John the Baptist was a very frequently recurring theme in painting until the seventeenth century. This theme can be joined to other similar scenes of decapitation. David cut the head of Goliath and several of the greatest painters used this theme of the Old Testament for one of their pictures. In another story of the Bible, Judith slay Holophernes and decapitated him.

Michelangelo Merisi, called Il Caravaggio was probably the greatest master who seems to have had this theme turning around in his mind. He made paintings of all three themes: the slaying of John the Baptist, of David carrying the head of Goliath, as well as a picture of Judith with the head of Holophernes. In addition, we owe him paintings of the ‘Offer of Isaac’, also a rather violent scene. Caravaggio went as far as to portray himself in the head of the slain Goliath that David carries. He was not the first painter for such a miserable self-portrait however. Michelangelo Buonarroti similarly painted his own sad, drooping face on the boneless skin that Saint Bartholomew holds in the ‘Last Judgement’ of the Sistine Chapel. Caravaggio lived an adventurous life in which violence was never far. He was accused of having participated in several fights in Rome, and he was even temporarily imprisoned. He became embroiled in a dispute over a game in 1606, after which a man was killed. He had to leave Rome on account of this. He first hid near Rome, then travelled to Naples and still later he went to the island of Malta. He had to flee from Valetta on Malta too, pursued by the wrath of a Knight of Malta. In many later pictures of Caravaggio one senses a violent tension and a brutal force of representation, which is in line with his scenes of beheaded figures.

Many painters pictured the slaying of Holophernes by Judith. The most forceful of these works is probably the one by Artemisia Gentileschi. This picture is all the more a rarity in the pictorial arts since it was made by one of the very first great woman painters. Thus, the psychological concept of a woman slaying a man and cutting off his head is an added poignant interest, and a theme that indeed was taken up by other artists. Artemisia Gentileschi was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi. Father and daughter lived in the seventeenth century. Artemisia had an eventful life. She had become the lover of Agostino Tassi. Tassi was a Florentine renowned painter with whom her father worked together and who taught her the art of painting in addition to her father. Orazio Gentileschi accused Agostino Tassi of rape on Artemisia, who was still a minor then. Tassi was judged, condemned and imprisoned. Artemisia was tortured before Tassi so that the court could extort a confession from him. Tassi indeed confessed. It was the end of his career. The ‘Judith and Holophernes’ was one of the first paintings of Artemisia and it is also one of her few remaining works. It shows an accomplished, very powerful artist.

Guido Reni

The theme of the ‘Beheading of John the Baptist’ interested Guido Reni, an artist from Bologna. Reni also made a picture of David carrying the head of Goliath. Here then we find an artist who, like Caravaggio, took the theme of a beheading and repeated it in various scenes. Reni lived from 1575 to 1642 in Bologna. He studied painting in the famous Accademia degli Incamminati founded by the three Carracci artists in 1580. Guido Reni continued the fame of Bolognese art. Reni knew the works of Caravaggio but he preferred more restrained presentations in art. He had travelled extensively and he worked besides Bologna also in Rome, in Ravenna, and in the Papal States. He used the grace of the Carracci painters and especially in his later years joined the more tempered style of the greatest of the Carracci, Annibale.

Guido Reni’s ‘Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist’ was painted around 1639 to 1640, so it is a very late work. Strangely as compared to the subject of the theme, Reni made a quiet, elegant and classic picture. Reni presents a marvellous Salome. She is a beautiful young woman, richly dressed. Salome is even shown as a gentle lady, holding with one hand gracefully her magnificent red, wide robe, showing exquisite bare feet. With her other hand however she cruelly lifts the head of John by the hair. But even here grace continues in this act and the silver platter is held delicately by a page. The young beauty Salome looks at the head with an air of interest but with indifference and in the other figures too few emotions can be discerned. No blood drips from John’s head. Some of this indifferent contempt at the sight of a slain man can also be found in Reni’s picture of the ‘Triumphant David’ of the Louvre museum. Guido Reni seems to want to show that at courts and between their nobles, death and cruelty are commonplace.

There is no background in this painting, except two ladies in waiting and a young servant opening a drapery, but even this small scene is painted in darkness. Some areas such as Salome’s red robe and the soft green costume of the page are painted in rapid brushstrokes so that all eyes remain on the exquisite face of Salome. The colours fade away from the centre, again emphasising Salome herself. The structure of the scene is the conventional pyramid, forced by the two arm movements and the broad robe of Salome.

Guido Reni worked in the Carracci style and he was the heir to Bolognese Classicism. He handled devotional subjects, but in the aristocratic, calm way of the Carraccis. Emotions are sublimated in this style so that what we have in Reni’s painting is the cool culmination of a style that reacted against the ostentatious display of emotions of Baroque.

At such a picture it is always difficult to grasp the meaning of the image. Reni may have expressed a moral message in view of the indifferent cruelty of Salome. Maybe he had a memory of a refused love in mind, or he thought only of a simple beautiful portrait of a young lady with an added religious theme. Whatever the real aim of the picture, the result is striking.

The relics of John the Baptist

The beheading of John the Baptist ended a remarkably vivid and cruel story of the New Testament. The act was the beginning however of an even more wonderful and mysterious episode of religious history told in the ‘Golden Legend’ and in the annals of the cathedral of Amiens, a town in northern France G43 .

After the beheading, John’s disciples took his body with them. Herod did not know what had happened with the body. He thought even at a later stage that Jesus was the resurrected John the Baptist.

The ‘Golden Legend’ tells that John’s bones – but not the head – were burned on the day of his martyrdom and partly recovered by his followers. The burning of John’s bones is a theme of which also various pictures exist. John’s disciples buried his body at Sebaste, a city of Palestine. The pagans scattered the bones but they were collected, buried, pulverised and the ashes thrown in the winds. According to Bede, some of the bones were carried off and given to Philip, bishop of Jerusalem. Afterwards Philip sent them to Anastasius, bishop of Alexandria. Still later, another bishop of Alexandria, Theophilus, enshrined the bones in the temple of Serapsis.

John’s head was in fact hidden by disciples of Jesus in the palace of Herod. Monks found the head back in the fourth century, in the ruins of Jerusalem. The ‘Golden Legend’ then tells that in the times of Emperor Macian Saint John revealed the whereabouts of his head to two monks who had come to Jerusalem. They found the head rolled up in haircloth sacks such as John had worn. The monks went their way with the head. A potter joined them on the road. The potter was admonished by Saint John to leave the monks and to go back to Emissa with the head. He hid the head in a cave there and at his death entrusted the relic to his sister. Later, John revealed the place of burial to Saint Marcellus who lived in the very cave where the head had been hidden. Marcellus followed a star until he found the head. He gave it to the bishop of the city. Emperor Valens still later wanted to transfer the head to Constantinople but it wanted to be led no further than Chalcedon. Much later, Emperor Theodosius brought it finally to Constantinople. The ‘Golden Legend’ states that then in the Frankish king Pepin’s reign the head was transferred to Poitiers in France. But the story of Amiens cathedral then is somewhat different, though its story also starts in Constantinople.

In 850, John’s head was in Constantinople. In 1204 the Crusaders took Constantinople and sacked the ancient imperial town. They stole the treasures of centuries, to pay Venice for their transport to the Orient and of course they stole even more for their own greed.

The Crusaders were keen after the old relics of Constantinople. A Crusader canon coming from Picquigny in northern French Picardy, called Wallon de Sarton, discovered in the ruins of a palace of Constantinople a relic consisting of a silver plate with in its middle a half ball of transparent crystal. The crystal contained the skeleton of a human head, minus the lower jaw. The head had a small hole above the left eye. Greek letters engraved in the plate asserted that this were the remains of John the Baptist. A legend evoked by Saint Jerome had told that Herodias in her anger had stabbed with a thin dagger stylus in the head of John. Wallon de Sarton had to sell the silver plate to pay for his voyage back to France, but he kept the crystal ball. In 1206 he gave the relic to Richard de Gerberoy, the bishop of the town of Amiens in Picardy G43 . Since then the relic is shown in the cathedral of Amiens.

The cathedral of 1206 soon became too small to host the multitudes of pilgrims. A new cathedral was built in Amiens from 1220 on. The cathedral was built in the new Gothic style. It is currently one of the most remarkable monuments of Gothic Catholicism in France. Kings visited John the Baptist’s head: Saint Louis, a Crusader himself, Charles VI and Charles VII. Sapphires, emeralds, amethysts, rubies, diamonds and precious pearls were added to the treasure of John the Baptist in Amiens cathedral. In December of 1790, a group of Commissars appointed by the revolutionary Directorate - the Directoire - of the district of Amiens, presented themselves at Amiens cathedral to make up the inventory of the treasure. The Mayor of the town, Louis-Alexandre Lescouve, received an order by the Representatives of the People to handle over the treasure of Amiens. He gave all the precious stones, the silver and gold, but kept the relic, which as he said had no value since it was only a skull, and should be buried in a nearby cemetery. He kept the relic in his house however, and then after two years gave it to a priest called Lejeune. In 1816 the Abbé Lejeune gave the famous crystal ball back to the new bishop of Amiens, Monseigneur Villaret. Finally, in 1876 a new silver plate was added to the head as it can be seen today in a niche of Amiens cathedral G43. Few pilgrims come to Amiens now and few tourists are amazed at the relic and its marvellous story. The relic is still there, almost forgotten now, a testimony of the past devotion of millions.

Other paintings:

Fourteenth century

Fifteenth century:

Sixteenth century:

Seventeenth century:

Nineteenth century:

Twentieth century

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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