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January 7, 2016

The Relics of St. John the Forerunner and Baptist

Right hand of St. John the Baptist at Dionysiou Monastery

By Prof. Anthony Markou

Brief Life: The greatest of the Prophets of the Old and New Testaments. "He showed himself to be the most-revered of the Prophets, having been made worthy to baptize in the waters the One he proclaimed."

According to the tradition of the Church, he was the fruit of the prayers of his righteous parents, the Prophet Zechariah and Saint Elizabeth, "born through divine announcement and promise." Before his birth, he venerated the unborn Christ "by leaping in the womb of his mother," when the Virgin Mary met her cousin Elizabeth in mountainous Judea; and upon his birth he released his father from silence!

During the persecution of Herod and the slaughter of 14,000 infants, his mother fled to the desert with her young child John. John lived there for about thirty years of his life, clothed in camel's hair and feeding on wild honey and the shoots of plants. There he prepared for the appearance and work of Christ, by preaching: "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near." He baptized Christ in the Jordan River.

Armed with the qualifications of an imposing preacher which was established with his impressive image and his fiery words to the crowd, he strongly condemned the pharisaical "holiness" of his contemporaries, who behind their religious formalities hid social plagues and moral impurities. This boldness cost him his life, having come to a martyric end by being beheaded by the Tetrarch of Galilee Herod, because he rebuked his lawless relationship with the wife of his brother Herodias.

The Church honors the Conception of the Honorable Forerunner of September 23, his Birth on June 24, his Beheading on August 29, the First and Second Finding of his Head on February 24, the Third Finding of his Head on May 25, and his Synaxis on January 7 ("because he served at the Mystery of the Baptism of the Lord").

The Relics of the Honorable Forerunner: The relic of the Honorable Forerunner was buried by his disciples (Mk. 6:21-29). It is not known when the translation took place, but upon the translation it was found to be incorrupt. During the persecution of Julian the Apostate his tomb in Sebaste was desecrated, and from the catastrophe only his hands and honorable head survived, because they were not kept with the body.

Concerning the Honorable Head of the Honorable Forerunner: According to the historian Dositheos, Patriarch of Jerusalem, the honorable head of the Baptist was preserved incorrupt.

The first time the head was found in the palace of Herod by two monks, "by an appearance and revelation of the Baptist himself," and it was brought to Emessa of Syria, where it eventually fell into the hands of the Arian Hieromonk Eustathios.

The second time the head was found hidden in a cave, "within an urn," and it was brought to Constantinople, where it was deposited in the church built in honor of the Forerunner in Evdomos.

The third time the head was found we are not given the particular details. We only know it was found in Comana of Cappadocia, "by a Priest within a silver vessel in a sacred place." From there it was again brought to Constantinople.

From an encomium written by St. Theodore the Studite, it is speculated that a portion or the whole head was in Studios Monastery. It was later preserved in Wallachia (it is unknown by whom and when it was brought), because in the 16th century a portion was given to Dionysiou Monastery in Mount Athos by the Ruler of Wallachia Neagu Basarab (1512-1521), who also paid for the construction cost of its golden reliquary. In 1765, as monks from Dionysiou were bringing it to a dependency of theirs on the island of Agios Eustathios, to save the land there from destructive locusts, their ship was looted by pirates, and the head of the Forerunner ended up at the Grand Mosque of Damascus, where it was kept in a special container.

Another portion of the head was preserved in Kalua Monastery in Wallachia (a dependency of the Holy Sepulchre). This portion "due to circumstances" was brought to Jerusalem by Patriarch Dositheos, and it is unknown where it is today.

After the Crusades there appeared in the West an alleged portion of the honorable head of the Forerunner, and for its preservation was built the Cathedral Church of Amiens, the largest Gothic church in Europe.

Concerning the Hands of the Honorable Forerunner: The incorrupt right hand of St. John suffered similar historical adventures as the head. According to the Synaxarion, the Evangelist Luke took the right hand and brought it to his homeland in Antioch. It was then brought to Constantinople by Emperors Constantine VII and Romanos I. In 1403 Ruy González de Clavijo (Spanish envoy to the Court of Tamerlane) venerated it in the Monastery of Peribleptos in Constantinople (built by Romanos III, 1031-1034). He writes: "It was the right hand from the elbow to the palm, very strong and fresh, although they say the whole body of the blessed John was dried, except for the finger of his right hand, which he pointed with and said, 'Behold, the Lamb of God.' This hand looked as if it was alive, and was covered in a thin gold wire, although it was missing the thumb" ("Journey to the Court of Tamerlane").

The Athonite scholar Gerasimos Smyrnakis notes that the right hand of the Saint with his head were brought to Constantinople, and for five hundred years could be found in the Monastery of Petrion, and after the fall of Constantinople it was placed in the treasury of the Sultan with the Crown of Thorns, the Lance and the Sponge. In some Turkish fiscal archives from 1484 kept in Topkapi, it is noted that Sultan Bayezid II (1481-1512) sent the hand of St. John to Hospitallers from Rhodes, (who occupied this island during the first quarter of the fourteenth century), in order to earn their favor. Later, the Hospitallers took the relics to the island of Malta, where they established their quarter.

In 1799, St. John’ hand was translated from Malta to Gatchina (Russia) when the Russian Emperor Paul the I (1796-1801) became the Grand Master of the Order of Malta, but also due to threats of war from Napoleon. This event is also mentioned in the Russian Synaxarion for October 12. It is not known the conditions under which the right hand of the Forerunner arrived at Dionysiou Monastery in Mount Athos. What we do know is that somehow in the first years of the 19th century the adviser to Prussia in Constantinople, John Frangopoulos, was in possession of this relic and he adorned it with jewels. On 10 March 1802 it was brought (or returned) to Dionysiou Monastery through the efforts of its abbot, Joachim Agiostratiti. This event is commemorated annually by the Monastery on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent with an all-night vigil.

In a testimony of the Spanish ambassador Clavijo dated 1404, he visited the Church of Saint John in Constantinople, probably the one built by Theodosius I the Great, near Blachernae Palace, which was shaped like a Baptistry and had exquisite mosaics, with its tall dome resting on four columns of green jasper and doors covered in gold. Near the doors was kept the incorrupt left hand of the Saint. He writes: "On that day they showed us the left hand (from the shoulder to the palm) of St. John the Baptist. It was so dry, that you could only see skin and bone. The elbow joint was made of gold and precious stones." The left hand of the Forerunner is preserved today in the Museum of Topkapi Palace in Constantinople.

The Relics Preserved Today of the Forerunner Are:

Part of the skull in Docheiariou Monastery in Mount Athos;

Part of the skull in the Grand Mosque of Damascus;

Upper part of the skull in the Museum of Topkapi Palace in Constantinople;

Part of the jaw "with three teeth" in Stavronikita Monastery in Mount Athos;

Incorrupt right hand in Dionysiou Monastery in Mount Athos;

Incorrupt left hand in the Museum of Topkapi Palace in Constantinople;

Part of the left hand in the Monastery of the Great Meteoron;

Finger in Vatopaidi Monastery in Mount Athos;

Fragments of the left hand in the Monastery of Saint John Makrynou in Megara, in the Church of the Birth of the Honorable Forerunner in Larisa, and in the Chapel of Saint Xenia the Fool for Christ in Mandra of Attica;

Fragments in Iveron Monastery, Pantocrator Monastery and Saint Panteleimon Monastery in Mount Athos.

In the Monastery of the Archangels in Aigialeia there is still preserved his "pigtail".

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.