August 29th, The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist
The beheading of St. John the Baptist, whom Herod ordered to be headed about the Feat of the Pasch; but his memory is solemnly kept on this day, on which his venerated head was found for the second time. It was afterwards translated to Rome and is preserved in the church of St. Silvester in Capite and honoured by the people with great devotion. (from The Roman Martyrology)
We intend, in this article, to attempt something new for the New Theological Movement blog – we will look at several icons of St. John the Baptist and briefly discuss the theology contained therein.
The head(s) of St. John the Baptist
While there are several churches which claim to posses the head of St. John the Baptist, we know (of course) that only at most one of these relics could be the true head of the Forerunner. However, on account of the manner of his martyrdom, the Baptist is regularly depicted in iconography with two heads: One firmly attached to his body, and another upon a plate (or in a chalice) either in his hands or at his feet.
This recalls the tradition of depicted martyrs together with reminders of their martyrdom – hence, St. Bartholomew is often depicted with his flayed skin and St. Simon Zelotes with a saw.
But on Herod's birthday, the daughter of Herodias danced before them: and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath, to give her whatsoever she would ask of him. But she being instructed before by her mother, said: Give me here in a dish the head of John the Baptist. And the king was struck sad: yet because of his oath, and for them that sat with him at table, he commanded it to be given. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought in a dish: and it was given to the damsel, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body, and buried it, and came and told Jesus. (Matthew 14:6-12)
St. John the Baptist with wings
You will notice that the Baptist often is depicted in iconography with wings. These do not symbolize that the Precursor was literally an angel (for he was not, contrary to the error of Origen), but rather call to mind that the Baptist served a quasi-angelic office. For the angels are appointed as the ministers between God and men, and it was St. John who went before our Lord to prepare his way. The very word angel means messenger, and this fits well with St. John's role as the voice crying out in the wilderness.
|"The Angel of the Desert" by Prokopiy Chirin|
The Baptist fulfills what had been prophesied through Malachi (3:1) regarding the angel of the Lord [the first part of the prophecy is from Malachi, the second from Isaiah]: As it is written in Isaias the prophet: Behold I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare the way before thee. A voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. John was in the desert baptizing, and preaching the baptism of penance, unto remission of sins. (Mark 1:2-4)
The Precursor holding the Christ Child
On occasion, one will come across an icon of St. John the Baptist holding not his own head but a chalice containing a child. This babe is the Christ Child, and the image calls to mind that St. John leapt in the womb and so testified that the unborn Child whom Mary carried was indeed the Son of the Most High.
|The Christ Child - "Behold the Lamb of God"|
St. John the Baptist, pray for us!