Byzantine reliquary of John the Baptist

Date: fourteenth century
Medium: Tempera, Gold, Wood
Dimensions: 9 × 23.5 × 9 cm
Description: This painted box with a sliding lid depicts scenes from the life of John the Baptist and must once have held a relic of this important saint. On the front right of the box, John's birth is announced to his father, Zacharias, a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem; behind him, John's expectant mother, Elizabeth, embraces her cousin Mary, who is pregnant with Jesus (a scene called the Visitation). On the left, Elizabeth gives birth to John, who is then washed in a basin by two women. Except for the bedroom setting, the birth of John closely resembles that of the Nativity of Christ. On the back right of the box, John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River, witnessed by angels who hold Jesus's discarded clothing; on the left, the saint is beheaded after denouncing the marriage of King Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee (d. 39 CE), to his brother's wife as adulterous. On the lid and both short ends are abstract ornaments with abundant gilding.

John was called "the Baptist" because he foresaw that Jesus was the messiah and participated in a critical event in Christian history. This title distinguishes him from John the Evangelist (or Apostle), who wrote one of the four Gospels. In 391 John the Baptist's head was moved from the Holy Land to Constantinople, where it became an important relic (other places also claimed to possess the head, including the Great Mosque of Damascus). Many Byzantine churches were dedicated to John, and he was among the saints most frequently represented in Byzantine art. The painted box can be dated on stylistic grounds to the fourteenth century. Very few Byzantine painted reliquaries survive, and where this one was made is unknown.
Relevant Textbook Chapter(s): 10
Image Credits: Cleveland Museum of Art

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Byzantine reliquary of John the Baptist, front (Cleveland Museum of Art) Byzantine reliquary of John the Baptist, lid (Cleveland Museum of Art) Byzantine reliquary of John the Baptist, short end (Cleveland Museum of Art)