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Stealing the Severed (Greek?) Head of John the Baptist

The Italian Renaissance was spurred on by the arrival of Greek emissaries to the Council of Florence in the late 15th century but, as Allie Terry points out, Florentine dignitaries had been in close contact with their Greek neighbors for many years prior to the council. Apparently, for the Florentines, the humanist desire to return to the sources of knowledge applied to relics as well as texts. For, the political leaders of the city of Florence sought the aid of the Greeks in obtaining relics of their patron saint, John the Baptist. As the Medici sought to bolster their claims to political power new measures were taken to associate their presence in Florence with the physical presence of St. John the Baptist. Terry explains:

According to the Golden Legend, the relic of John the Baptist’s head miraculously translated from Jerusalem to Emissa to Constantinople. In the reign of Pepin, the head was transported from Constantinople to France, thereby further merging Byzantine and French imperial identities through hagiographic and material means. At the turn of the fifteenth century in Florence, John the Baptist’s relics were associated with the imperial courts of Byzantium through several important material translations of relics from Constantinople to Florence. For example, a finger of St John the Baptist, given by the Byzantine emperor John VII Palaiologos to the brother of Cardinal Piero Corsini, was bequeathed to the Duomo in 1405. The relic bore a lead seal from the Patriarch of Constantinople, who attested its authenticity. Another finger-bone of the saint was given to Lapo Ruspi by a domestiskos of the Eastern emperor. The relic stayed in the family’s possession until 1393, when it was acquired by the Calimala guild for the Baptistery. Several more relics arrived in Florence from Constantinople in 1393, including part of the Baptist’s jawbone and two bones from his neck. Acquired by a Florentine named Antonio Torrigiani, who worked as a chamberlain in the imperial court, the relics were then given to his wife, who sold them to the Calimala guild in exchange for a lifetime stipend.1

To emphasize just how desperate was the Florentine desire for the presence of their patron saint Terry recounts:

But what is particularly significant in terms of the translation of relics is that in the period immediately after the completion of the decoration at San Marco, the Florentines – with Cosimo de’Medici as their effective leader – staged an attempt to steal the actual head of John the Baptist from the church of San Silvestro in Capite. Apparently, the architect and art theorist Antonio di Piero Averlino, called Filarete, acted as the Florentine agent in the attempted theft of the relic, but he was thwarted by the authorities and subsequently underwent a trial and torture before his release in the late 1440s. Already in 1415, Baldassare Cossa was accused of attempting to sell the head to the Florentines but was prevented by the Roman congregation. Several years later, in 1423, the relic of the Baptist’s jaw in possession of the Florentines had been matched to the head in San Silvestro in Capite as a means to authenticate it. The drastic measures taken to acquire the relic in the 1440s points to an increased desire for the material presence of the saint’s head in the city.2

The Florentine connection to the “Greek” John the Baptist was perhaps also inspired by the revised biography of St. Denys by the Greeks who maintained the basic story of the saint’s beheading but transferred the act to Athens rather than Paris and associate Dionysius’s beheading not with that of the French St. Denys but with the beheading of St. John the Baptist. Of course the attempt at obtaining relics of John the Baptist, for both Florentines and Greeks, was tied to the newly recovered (for the Florentines at least) writings of the Greek father John Chrysostom who, in his Homily in honour of SS Juvintinus and Maximus, ranks the head of John the Baptist as the most prized relic of all the other severed head relics.3

  1. Allie Terry, “Donatello’s decapitations and the rhetoric of beheading in Medicean Florence,” Renaissance Studies 23:5 (2009), 622.
  2. Ibid., 623.
  3. Ibid., 621.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.