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Monday, August 29, 2011

The Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist - August 29

The Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist
August 29

Saint John the Baptist bore witness to the Truth without compromise throughout his entire life. While still in his mother’s womb, he leaped for joy upon encountering Jesus in the womb of Mary. (Luke 1:41) As a young man, Saint John was called to “prepare the way of the Lord,” (Matthew 3:4) then identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Finally Saint John was called to the “extraordinary witness few men and women are called to, Christian martyrdom”.

In the 13th century, Benozzo Gozzoli an Italian artist, received a commission for an altarpiece from the Confraternity of the Purification of the Virgin. His instructions, create a center altarpiece of the Virgin and Child surrounded by Angels and Saints. Then create predella panels, individual strips to line the bottom of the center panel, illustrating the lives of each of the Saints surrounding the Virgin and Child.

The Saints in Gozzoli’s center altarpiece are to the left standing Saint John the Baptist, Saint Zenobius and Saint Jerome kneeling. To the right stand Saint Peter and Saint Dominic with Saint Francis kneeling. The predella created for Saint John the Baptist would depict simultaneously three moments of his final hours as recounted in the Gospel of Matthew 14:3-11.

In this Gospel, Herod had arrested John, and put him in prison because John had told Herod it was not lawful for him to marry his brother's wife Herodiaus. As John sat in prison Herod threw a party where the daughter of Herodiaus danced for the guests. Taking great pleasure in the dance, Herod promised to give the girl whatever she asked for. “Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.’” (Matthew 14:8)

In my August 2011 issue of Magnificat, Jem Sullivan describes Gozzoli’s predella, The Feast of Herod and the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.

“On the left side of the panel, the very moment of John the Baptist’s martyrdom is framed within a round arched doorway. In contrast to the sensuality of Herod’s feast, we see the serene and innocent saint kneeling with his hands folded in prayer before his executioner. He is about to pay the ultimate price of his witness to Christ as he lowers his haloed head  minutes in advance of the beheading sword. The visual narrative comes full circle in the two figures placed in the background of the composition. The young girl now kneels before her mother with a platter upon which lies the severed head of the martyred saint…..Both in life and in death this Gospel saint witnesses to the power of courage, grace, and daily conversion of life…Only a few men and women are called to the extraordinary witness of Christian martyrdom in every age of the Church. But we are all called, by virtue of baptism, to ongoing conversion of life, perseverance in prayer, and selfless witness to the Gospel in our homes, places of work, neighborhoods, and communities of faith.”

Saint John the Baptist Pray for Us

The Virgin and Child Enthroned among Angels and Saints - Benozzo Gozzoli (1461-1462)
The Feast of Herod and the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist - Benozzo Gozzoli

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