Religious relics are oddities to those of us who aren’t Catholic. So much so that even I, who apparently lives in a city that is currently hosting one of Saint John the Baptists’s holy fingers, had no idea!
The finger made me curious, so I went searching (online – though if anyone wants to finance a physical pilgrimage, I’m open to a discussion) for the rest of the venerated saint. The story that emerged turned out to be a pretty interesting one.
John the Baptist lived early in the first century and is believed to have been the man to baptize Jesus of Nazareth. He’s generally considered to be a prophet in his own right, by not only Christians, but Jews and Muslims, as well. His popularity caused him to fall out of favor with King Herod Antipas, who arrested John and had him brought to the palace. John was eventually beheaded in Judea (some would add that Herod was reluctant to do so, but the fact seems as irrelevant to me as it was to John at the time).
What happened to the Baptist’s body and bones in the centuries to come is, as with most ancient history, shrouded in the mists of time. According to historians Theodoret and Rufinus, Saint John the Baptist’s tomb was desecrated in 362 and the relics burned. What remained afterward was taken to Jerusalem, then to Alexandria, where, in 395, it was placed in the church that bears his name.
After this, the trail gets a little sketchy.
An 11th century Byzantine historian named John Skylitzes claims that the right hand, at least, was moved from Antioch to Constantinople in 956 by Constantine VII, there placed in the church of the Most Holy Theotokos of Peribleptos.
But where in the world are the remaining relics of John the Baptist now?
Well, we only know for certain where three of them reside, though some bones discovered in Bulgaria in 2010 were recently carbon dated to verify that they could belong to John the Baptist (they know for sure that whoever the bones belong to, he lived in the early first century in the Middle East, which is as good as it gets since we have no DNA to compare it to).
John the Baptist’s Finger: You can find this safely stored in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, United States.
John the Baptist’s Head (most of it): Saint Amiens Cathedral in France claims to be able to trace their relic back to the 4th Crusade, when Wallon de Sarton found the skull in a church in Constantinople, sitting upon a silver plate engraved with its provenance. He had to sell the silver plate in order to get home, but once it was delivered, construction of a cathedral to hold the relic was immediately begun. It has resided there since the 1200s, aside from a brief removal during the French Revolution.
John the Baptist’s Right Hand: This hand, which would have been the one to touch Jesus’ head during his baptism, is said to reside in the Serbian Orthodox Monastery of Cetinje, in Montenegro.
The rest of his remains have been lost, either to the 4th century fire or to history itself. The idea of visiting ancient bones around the world may seem like the perfect topic for October reading, but, for the true believers of the world, it’s a subject always relevant to their faith and well-being.