The doubts about the authenticity of the relic of St John

The mysteries of the findings of the head of Saint John the Baptist

st john the baptist

The Holy Tradition tells us that after the beheading of St John the Baptist, Herodias did not allow to bury the severed head of the prophet together with his body. She defiled the honourable head and buried it near her palace. The disciples of St John secretly took the saint’s body and buried it. The wife of King Herod's steward knew where Herodias had buried the head of St John. She decided to rebury her in one of Herod's estates on the Mount of Olives.

When rumours about the preaching of Christ and the miracles that He performed reached the royal palace, Herod, together with his wife Herodias, decided to check whether the head of John the Baptist was still in the place where they had left it. Not finding it, they began to think that Jesus Christ was the resurrected John the Baptist. The Holy Gospel bears witness to their mistake (see Matt. 14:2).

Jerusalem. The First Acquisition of the Head of John the Baptist

Many years later, during the reign of King Constantine Equal-to-the-Apostles, his mother, St Helena, began reviving the shrines of Jerusalem. Many pilgrims began to flock to the Holy Land. Among them were two monks from the East who came to venerate the True Cross and the Holy Sepulcher. It was them whom St John counted worthy of finding his honourable head. Today, we only know that he appeared to the monks in a dream and that after finding the head in the place indicated by the prophet, they decided to return home. On the way, they met a poor potter from the Syrian city of Emesa. Poverty had forced him to go to the neighbouring country in search of work. Either out of negligence or laziness, the monks entrusted their new companion to carry the bag with the sacred relic. He carried it until St John appeared to him and ordered him to escape from the negligent monks taking along the bag with the relic.

For the sake of the blessed head of St John the Baptist, the Lord also blessed the potter's house with every good thing. The potter lived his whole life, remembering his benefactor. He was never proud and gave alms generously. Shortly before his death he handed the relic over to his sister, instructing her to pass it on to God-fearing and virtuous Christians.

After being passed along from one person to another for a long time, the precious head fell into the hands of Hieromonk Eustaсius, a supporter of the Arian heresy. Afflicted people turned to him for help and received healing, not knowing that the reason for this miraculous help was not the apparent piety of Eustaсius, but the grace coming from the relic that he was hiding. Soon the deception was revealed, and Eustaсius was expelled from Emesa. A monastery was soon founded near the cave where the hieromonk lived and in which the head of John the Baptist was buried.

Emesa and Constantinople. Second and Third Uncoverings of the Honourable Head

After many years, the Second acquisition of the precious head took place. This is known from the testimony of archimandrite Markell of the Emesa monastery, and from the life of the Venerable Matrona († November 9), compiled by the Venerable Symeon the Metaphrast. According to the former, the head was revealed to him on February 18, 452. A week later, Bishop Uranius of Emesa established special veneration of the relic, and on February 26 of the same year it was transferred to the newly built church in honour of St John. This event is celebrated on February 24 (March 9, or March 8 in a leap year) on par with the celebration of the First Acquisition of the honourable head.

After some time, the head of John the Forerunner was transferred to Constantinople, where it remained until iconoclastic times. Pious Christians leaving Constantinople secretly took the relic with them and hid it in Kamani (near Sokhumi), a city in which St John Chrysostom died in exile (407). After the VII Ecumenical Council (787), restoring the Orthodox veneration of icons, the head of St John the Baptist was returned to the Byzantine capital (about 850). The Church celebrates this event on May 25 (June 7) as the Third Acquisition of the venerable head.

Fourth Crusade and Travel to the West

The story about the head of St John usually ends with the episode related to its Third Acquisition. This is due to the fact of its further history being connected with the Catholic West. If we turn to the lives of the saints, according to the Menology of St Demetrius of Rostov, after the description of the acquisitions of the precious head, we will find a footnote in small print, often overlooked by readers. This citation became a real revelation for us after we had unexpectedly discovered the head of the Baptist in France a few years ago. Below I would like to speak in more detail about this further “acquisition” of the head of John the Baptist in the distant West.

In this citation we read that after 850, part of the head of St. John the Baptist came to be located in the Prodromos Monastery in Petra, and the other part in the Studion Monastery of the Forerunner. In this monastery, the pilgrim Anthony saw the upper section of the head back in 1200. However, already in 1204, it was moved by the crusaders to Amiens in northern France. Besides that, the footnote shows three other locations of pieces of the head: the Athonite monastery Dionysiou, the Ugro-Wallachian monastery of Kalua, and the Church of Pope Sylvester in Rome, where a piece was taken from Amiens.

The Face of St. John the Baptist

The Face of St. John the Baptist, in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Amiens Photo: Orthodox France

The history of the relic's appearance in France is not much different from that of many other great Christian shrines.

On April 13, 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, the troops of the Western Knights captured the capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople. The city was devastated and plundered.

According to Western tradition, Canon Wallon de Sarton of Picinia found in the ruins of one of the palaces a case containing a silver platter. On it, under a glass cap there were remains of a human face with a missing lower jaw. A small hole was visible above the left eyebrow, probably pierced by a dagger blow.

On the platter itself, the canon found an inscription in Greek confirming that he was holding the relics of St John the Baptist. The presence of the hole above the eyebrow was consistent with the event mentioned by St Jerome. According to him, Herodias stabbed the severed head of the saint with a dagger in a fit of anger.

Cathedral of Our Lady of Amiens

Cathedral of Our Lady of Amiens (Notre Dame d'Amiens). Photo: S.P.A.D.E.M. — Editions d'art Yvon

Wallon de Sarton decided to deliver the relic to Picardy, in the north of France.

On December 17, 1206, on the third Sunday of Advent, the Catholic Bishop of Amiens, Richard of Gerberoy, solemnly met the holy relics of John the Baptist at the city gates. Apparently, the bishop was assured of the relics' authenticity, which was then easier to verify "on hot scents". From that time the veneration of the head of St John began in Amiens and throughout Picardy.

In 1220, the Bishop of Amiens laid the foundation stone of a new cathedral, which, after many additions, would become the most magnificent Gothic building in Europe. The facial part of the head of St John was transferred to this cathedral as the city's main relic.

Church of the Forerunner at Lateran Palace in Rome

Church of the Forerunner at Lateran Palace in Rome (Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano). Photo: Alexander Starodubtsev

Gradually, Amiens became a place of pilgrimage not only for ordinary Christians, but also for French kings, princes and princesses. The first king venerated the honourable head in 1264. It was Louis IX , nicknamed "the Saint". His son Philip III the Bold, Charles VI, and Charles VII, who donated generously to decorate the relic, followed him.

In 1604, Pope Clement VIII, wishing to enrich the Church of the Forerunner in Rome (Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano), requested that the canons of Amiens would provide a particle of the relics of St John for the basilica.

Saving the head in Times of Revolutionary Atrocities

After the revolution of 1789, the inventory of church property and the requisitioning of relics took place throughout France.

The reliquary with the head of the holy Forerunner remained in the cathedral until November 1793, when it was demanded by representatives of the Convention. They removed all the jewels, and ordered the relics of St John to be sent to the cemetery. However, the will of the revolutionary authorities was not fulfilled. Upon their departure, the mayor of the city, Louis-Alexandre Lescouve, secretly returned to the treasury and took the relics to his house on pain of death. Thus the relic was preserved. A few years later, the former mayor handed it over to Abbot Lejeune for preservation. In 1816, after the cessation of revolutionary persecution, the head of St John was returned to the Amiens Cathedral, where it has been resting ever since.

At the end of the 19th century, historical science (not without the participation of church leaders) recognized that in the Middle Ages there had been many instances of false relics. Due to the general mistrust, the veneration of the Amiens shrine began to gradually wane.

***

Unfortunately, few believers resort to the help of such a lamp of grace as the venerable head of St John, “the first among martyrs in grace”. It is joyful however that in recent years there have been more and more Orthodox pilgrims in Amiens, with Orthodox prayer services and even Liturgies being served before the head of St John the Baptist.

Priest Maxim Massalitin

 

June 16, 2022
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