Icon: Head of St John the Forerunner A-8
- Greece, 17th century, signed Daniēl hieromonachos
- Tempera on wood, 27 x 22 cm
Private Collection, Switzerland
Morsink Icon Gallery, Amsterdam, Netherlands
ALR Ref. No.: S00128095
Dr Eva Haustein-Bartsch
Against a golden background, a chalice with a high base, decorated with fine chrysography, stands on a green marble slab. In it, almost floating, lies the severed head of St John the Baptist with closed eyes. The ascetic face with its long narrow nose is depicted in three-quarter profile and modelled with fine white lines in sharp light-dark contrast, which points towards a dating of the icon in the 17th century. A lock of long brown hair hangs over the edge of the cup, another lock falls over his ear. The beard is carefully arranged in several parallel curls. Red drops of blood trickle from the neck below the ear. In the upper left and right corner, the name of the saint is written in red Greek letters: Ο Α(γιος) ΙΩ ο ΠΡΟ(ΔΡΟΜ)ος (Saint John the Forerunner). Above the green marble slab is the signature of the painter: ΧΕΙΡ ΔΑΝΙΗΛ ΙΕΡΟΜΟΝ(Α)χος (by the hand of the priest-monk Daniel).
The depiction of the head of John the Baptist in a chalice or on a platter as the main theme is extremely rare on icons. A Moscow icon dated to the end of the 16th century in the Petit Palais in Paris (Ziadé 2017, cat. no. 50, p. 118) and an icon attributed to the circle of Gurij Nikitin (1620-1691) could be the oldest examples. Overall, the subject is more common in Russia than on Greek icons (for example Ivanov 1988, fig. 126, Lafontaine-Dosogne 1995, cat. no. R29, p. 162, Ruaro Loseri, 1975, cat. no. 28). In the West, carved platters with St John's head were already widespread in the Middle Ages and should contribute to easing headaches.
The image of the chalice with the head of St John is far more frequently represented on icons with a full-length representation of the winged saint, at his feet. (for example, Drakopoulou 2010, fig. 1 and 48; Weitzmann et al. 1982, p. 360) or in his hands (for example Chatzēdakēs 1987, fig. 5, Chatzēdakēs / Drakopoulou 1997, fig. 105). As a model for the icon in Amsterdam could have served the detail with the head of St John on an early-15th century icon with the winged St John, signed by the famous painter Angelos (now in the Hof van Busleyden Museum of Mechelen, Vandamme 1988, cat. no. 119, ill.143; Vassilaki 2010, cat. no. 38, p. 178, ill. p. 179, 135) and on an almost identical but much larger icon in the Byzantine Museum in Athens (Milanou 2008, ill. 4, p. 23). Although the image of St John's head is painted in reverse, it shows many similarities with the St John icon in Amsterdam.
A very similar icon, certainly signed by the same painter Daniel in black letters on the dark marble floor, was auctioned in 1994 by Sotheby's in London (Sotheby's 1994, lot 249). At 28.5 x 24 cm, it is only marginally smaller than our icon. Since both icons are not dated, it is impossible to know which of the two 17th-century painters who signed as ‘Hieromonach Daniēl' created the panel. One painter was active on Mount Athos from 1608-1620, where he painted the icon ‘About Thee Rejoiceth', the St John icon for the Katholikon in the Great Lavra, and frescoes for several chapels of the monasteries Dionysiou and Monoxylitēs (Chatzidakis 1987, p. 255, fig. 129, 130; Drakopoulou 2010, p. 243). A second Hieromonach Daniēl worked on the island of Patmos, where a signed and 1669 dated St. Nicholas icon can be found in the St. Nicholas Church Stratē, and frescoes by his hand of St. Basileios and of the Ascension of Christ in the Basileios chapel of the Monastery of St John (Chatzidakis 1987, pp. 256-257). Although it is not possible at this moment to be sure which of the two 17th century homonymous masters painted the two icons with the severed head of St John, he was possibly the first to introduce this motif as the main theme in Greek icon painting.
According to legend, the head of the Baptist, decapitated at the command of King Herod, was repeatedly hidden and rediscovered over time. Several places claim to have the important relic or at least part of it in their possession, such as the Church of San Silvestro in Capite in Rome and the Cathedral of Amiens, where the relic had been brought after the looting of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Another skull-relic can be found in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, which was originally built as a church dedicated to St John the Baptist, and another fragment in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, which was captured in 1453 during the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans. Two feast days in the Orthodox church calendar commemorate the finding of the head of St John: the first and second finding on the 24th of February, and the third in the year 823 on the 25th of May. It is possible that the present icon painted by Daniel served to be worshiped by the believers on the Proskynetarion of a church on these feast days.