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The Beheading of John the Baptist

“Men create their own hell and help one another descend into it. Perdition is an equitable exchange because it results from reciprocal evil desires and evil behavior. The only victims are children on whom scandal is imposed.” (René Girard)

I remember with great fondness childhood visits to the Art Institute of Chicago with my father. Those visits instilled in me a sense of the importance of the arts and an abiding appreciation for the beautiful as a route of access to God. But, those visits also taught me something else about the macabre sensibilities of Catholic art. Some of the paintings that made the greatest impression were hardly pretty pictures. One was Bernat Martorelli’s “St. George and the Dragon” (of note were the skeletal remains of the dragon’s victims splayed out at the bottom of the painting) and six paintings by Giovanni di Paolo that detailed significant events in the life of St. John the Baptist.

If I remember correctly, the startling finale to these panels was the execution of the saint, which had poor St. John’s body positioned as leaning out of a window and captured as if in the moment right after his head had been lopped off. Crimson blood runs down the bottom of the windowsill. The saint’s decapitated head seemed to have been caught like a tossed basketball by a cooperative servant. Vivid. Better than anything I had come across in a horror movie. The passage of time has taught me that what is most memorable about the story of the death of John the Baptist is simply not the gruesome detail from di Paolo’s painting that had captured my childish imagination. The tale of John’s terrifying demise is expressed succinctly in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark; both are chilling and perceptive accounts of human cruelty and cultural dysftunction. I have written about John the Baptist before noting that the identification with John’s family as being from the priestly clans of Israel in the Gospel of Luke seems to be a necessary, rather than incidental, detail. His lineage positions John’s conflict with the priestly establishment and the Herodian dynasty and possibly identifies that the basis for John’s complaint against the ruling powers of Israel concerns the magnificent temple that Herod constructed in Jerusalem—that temple was built by a messianic pretender. Herod and his dynasty were frauds, usurpers to a throne that belonged to the successors of King David.

Read more at Word on Fire. 

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