29 August 2012

29 August - Decollation of John the Baptist

Today is the second feast of St. John the Baptist, that of his beheading.  My own take on the story is here.

"Watch where you're putting that thing!"
Over the years there have been learned disputes and disquisitions that this festival day originally commemorated the finding or gathering of his relics, particularly his head or the finger which had pointed to Christ when he said “Behold the Lamb of God”, and that it was called Festum Collectionis Sancti Johannis Baptistae.  At some point, they aver,  Collectionis’ was corrupted to ‘Decollationis’, and thus became the commemoration of his beheading.

Of course it might have been the other way around and Decollationis might – through clerical error – have become de collectionis.  Bad spelling is nothing new.

The Golden Legend (13th century) makes everybody happy by saying that the day was established for four causes: “First, for his decollation; secondly, for the burning and gathering together of his bones; thirdly, for the invention and finding of his head; and fourthly, for the translation of his finger and dedication of the Church.  And after some people this feast is named diversely, that is to say, decollation, collection, invention, and dedication.”  It then goes on to discuss each cause at length.

Be that as it may, at least from the 10th century and probably a few centuries before, today has been dedicated to the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.


Sometimes artists depicted the beheading by having John stick his head out of his prison door or window (or like the image above, up through the floor from his cell)

Headsman: “Yo, Johnnie-boy, der’s a lady here wants to talk wi’ youse.

John B obliges, looking out of the window or door, and THWACK!  And the rest you know.


And what became of the other principal actors of this drama?  The story is that some years later, around AD 39, Herodias convinced Herod Antipas (against his better judgment) to go to Rome and seek the title of king.  Unbeknownst to either of them, her brother Agrippa (since it was likely his crown they were seeking) sent letters to Caligula claiming that H. A. had made treaties of friendship with the rulers of Persia and had stockpiled arms in various cities preparatory to leading a rebellion against Rome.  Herod’s answers to a few casual questions about the battle-readiness of the area under his control convinced the emperor that Agrippa was right, and H. A. was sent into permanent exile, either to Lyons (France) or to Spain.*  Herodias was given the option of staying in Rome or Judea with the rest of the family, but she chose to stay with her lover in Lyons or Spain, “and there ended their lives miserably.”

*According to Sir William Smith: “She accompanied Antipas into exile to Lugdunum, probably… Lugdunum Convenarum, a town of Gaul, on the right bank of the Garonne, at the foot of the Pyrenees, now St. Bertrand de Comminges, on the frontier of Spain.”  Dictionary of the Bible, 1868.

A more satisfying legend, one that could grace a horror movie, is that Herodias died “when she held the head between her hands… but by the will of God the head blew in her visage, and she died forthwith.”

Dancing Salome, the daughter of Herodias and Herod II (aka Herod Philip) married her father’s half-brother, another Herod Philip, better known as Philip the Tetrarch.  Talk about inbreeding!  Herod II, Philip the Tetrarch, and Herod Antipas (Salome’s step-father) were sons of Herod the Great (he of the Holy Innocents Massacre) by different mothers.  Herodias (Salome’s mother), Herod of Chalcis, and Herod Agrippa I (who put to death the Apostle James) were children of Aristobulus, another son of Herod the Great.  Herodias married her uncle Herod II, had Salome, and left him for an adulterous liaison with another uncle, Antipas.  Keeping it in the family, Salome married her paternal uncle/maternal grand-uncle. 

(I wonder if any of them played dueling psalteries?)

Philip the Tetrarch, after some ambitious building and rebuilding projects, died in his new city of Cesarea (Philippi) in AD 34.  Salome then married her cousin Aristobulus, king of Chalcis and Armenia Minor, and had three sons: Herod, Agrippa, and Aristobulus.

Legend desired that she die a horrible death for her crime and so claimed that she drowned or was swallowed alive by the earth or fell through an icy pond and was appropriately decapitated by the ice.  She probably died of full living, being somewhere in her late 40s or 50s.

Both Herodias and Salome have asteroids named after them.

Rogier van der Weyden,  Saint John Altarpiece (right panel), 1455-1460.
Dutch woodcut, Golden Legend, 1489
Unknown artist and title.  I call it "Oh 'eck!"