Where is St John the Baptist’s head?

On Monday we remember the passion and death of St John the Baptist. He was said to have been buried at the Palestinian village of Sebastia, near modern-day Nablus in the West Bank.

Relics were being honored there in the fourth century and the tomb continued to be visited by pilgrims, and St Jerome bears witness to miracles being worked there. Today, the tomb is said by some to be housed there in the Nabi Yahya Mosque (“John the Baptist Mosque”).

Relics of the saints have always had a fascination for many as centres of devotion. What became of the Head of John the Baptist is particularly hard to determine, and the centre of curious rivalries. Some ancient authorities say that Herodias had it buried in Jerusalem possibly in Herod’s palace, where it was found during the reign of Constantine and secretly taken to Phoenicia. There it was hidden for years, until it was manifested by a revelation in 453. In any case, over the centuries several different locations claim to possess the relic. Among the various claimants are:

  • in France, Amiens Cathedral contains what it claims to be the head of John the Baptist, brought as a relic from Constantinople by the French leaders of the Fourth Crusade
  • Islamic tradition maintains that the head of Saint John the Baptist was interred in what was previously the Basilica of Saint John the Baptist in Damascus, now the Umayyad Mosque
  • the Eastern Orthodox Church of St John the Baptist in Jerusalem displays a purported fragment of the skull of St John the Baptist
  • a reliquary at the Residenz in Munich, Germany, is labelled as containing what previous Bavarian rulers thought was the skull of John the Baptist
  • it is also believed by some that a piece of the skull is held at one of the monasteries on Mount Athos, in Greece
  • lastly, a strong tradition holds that the head on display at the church of San Silvestro in Capite in Rome is that of John the Baptist

The jokey priest there when I was in seminary in Rome in the 70s used to joke that their head was when John the Baptist was a younger man!

Fr Matthew