The imprisonment and brutal death of St John the Baptist is recorded in three of the gospels, although St Mark’s account is the most detailed (Matthew 14:3-12; Mark 6:17-29; Luke 3:19-20; 9:7-9).
As background, King Herod of Galilee had married Herodias, his brother’s wife. Not one to hold back, St John the Baptist told him in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t lawful for him to be in a relationship with his brother’s wife. This made Herod furious and he had St John thrown into prison, hoping that this would silence him.
Herodias was also seething about St John’s comments and she wanted him dead. However, Herod thought that he was a good man. He also knew that the people were on his side and viewed him as a prophet. Fearing their reaction, he protected St John from his wife’s anger.
Eventually, Herod’s birthday came round, so he threw a grand banquet for the movers and shakers of Galilee. During the banquet, Salome, who was the daughter of Herodias, performed a dance for Herod and his guests. This pleased the king, leading him to publicly promise to give the young woman whatever she asked for in return. He confirmed this promise with an oath.
Salome then consulted her mother, who saw an opportunity for revenge against St John. So Herodias advised her to ask for his head on a dish. The daughter returned to Herod and in front of all the guests, asked exactly for that.
When Herod heard this he was very sad, but, because of his oath, he felt he had been backed into a corner. He immediately sent one of his bodyguards to the prison where St John was being held with orders to behead him. The bodyguard did so, returning with his head. This was placed upon a dish and brought to the young woman, who carried it to her triumphant mother.
This dramatic stained glass scene of the beheading of St John is found in the church of Our Lady of Reparation, Croydon. Dating to 1949, it sits alongside other images of St John’s life such as his birth and his baptism of Christ. The window captures the moment of highest drama as St John kneels for the execution.
The combination of the bodyguard’s determined face and St John’s peaceful expression makes for a striking contrast. The Latin caption displayed by the angel – At illa dixit: Caput Joannis Baptistae – is from Mark 6:24 and refers to Herodias’ cruel request for ‘the head of John the Baptist’. The specific artist is unknown.
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Where to find this work of art
Our Lady of Reparation, Croydon
Read the relevant passage