Today's Gospel in Art - The beheading of John the Baptist

Apparition of the Head of St John the Baptist,  by Gustave Moreau 1876 © Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Apparition of the Head of St John the Baptist, by Gustave Moreau 1876 © Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Gospel of 1st August 2020 - Matthew 14:1-12

Herod the tetrarch heard about the reputation of Jesus, and said to his court, 'This is John the Baptist himself; he has risen from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.'

Now it was Herod who had arrested John, chained him up and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife. For John had told him, 'It is against the Law for you to have her.' He had wanted to kill him but was afraid of the people, who regarded John as a prophet. Then, during the celebrations for Herod's birthday, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and so delighted Herod that he promised on oath to give her anything she asked. Prompted by her mother she said, 'Give me John the Baptist's head, here, on a dish.' The king was distressed but, thinking of the oaths he had sworn and of his guests, he ordered it to be given her, and sent and had John beheaded in the prison. The head was brought in on a dish and given to the girl, who took it to her mother. John's disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went off to tell Jesus.

Reflection on the Painting

This haunting picture, by Gustave Moreau, is a striking depiction of today's Gospel reading where we read how Salome danced for her stepfather on his birthday. Seduced by her performance, he offered her anything within his power as a reward. Not knowing what to ask for, she consulted her mother who told her to demand the head of St John the Baptist. In our painting the severed head, with a cascade of blood, stares from mid-air at the bejewelled, richly and scantily clad princess, who points to her trophy. A black panther lies at her feet. Look at the eyes of Salome and then St John's expression. The eyes express two different worlds. Herod is placed in the shadows at the left, opposite the radiant head of Saint John the Baptist. Oscar Wilde wrote his play Salome after seeing this very painting.

The sadness of the Gospel reading of today lies in the contrast between John and those responsible for his death. Saint John the Baptist, a God loving man, is completely different to Salome, who had a complete lack of conscience. She showed no comprehension of right or wrong. Even when the plate holding St John's head was presented to her, we read that she just took it to her mother without any sign of horror or remorse on seeing the gruesome blood-filled platter. At the end of the day Salome was the product of the environment in which she grew up, which included hatred, revenge, murder… The environment in which we grow up, nurtures who we become. As such we are all called to provide a Christlike environment around us…


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Tags: Christian Art, Patrick van der Vorst, Gustave Moreau

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