The icon above shows, in the center, the killing of John the Forerunner (Baptist) as mentioned in the new testament.  But all the other images around it come from the legends of what happened later.

Everyone familiar with the New Testament stories knows that according to them, John was beheaded.  In the legends that followed, his head kept getting lost and found over the years.  In fact there are THREE “official” findings of the head of John, all shown in iconography and celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church calendar.

It is said that after the killing of John, his disciples buried the body in Sebastia, a Samaritan city.

Here is the portion of the icon showing the burial/entombment of the body:

But Herodias, the wife of Herod and scheming mother of Salome, is said to have hidden the head in “a dishonorable place” — i.e. a pile of manure.

Now the Gospel called “Of Luke” says in 8:1-3, when talking about Jesus:

And it came to pass soon afterwards, that he went about through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good tidings of the kingdom of God, and with him the twelve, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary that was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,  and Joanna the wife of Chuzas Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who ministered unto them of their substance. 

This Χουζᾶς — Khouzas — as he is called in Greek (Хуза/Khuza in Slavic) was, as said here, Herod’s steward.  But note that the emphasis is not upon him, but rather on his wife Ioanna/Joanna.  It is Ioanna who figures in the later tale of what became of John’s head.

According to the legend, Ioanna took the head of John from its hiding place, put it in a clay jar, and buried it at one of Herod’s properties on the Mount of Olives.  Years later, a noble named Innocent (Innokenity in Slavic) came into possession of the property.  He was having a church built there, but when the trench for the foundation was being dug, the clay jar containing the head of John was discovered.  According to the legend, the “signs” accompanying the finding showed Innocent that it was an important relic.  He kept it with great honor, but when his death was near, he feared that it might be desecrated by non-believers.  Consequently, he had the head buried again where it was found — in the church.  And after his death the church was neglected and fell into ruin, covering the burial place of John’s head.

In the days after Constantine had become the Roman Emperor, two monks visiting holy places came through Jerusalem.  While there, John the Forerunner appeared to them (saints were always appearing to people in these old tales, it seems), and told them where his head was buried.  They went to the ruined church, found the head, and placed it in a woven camel hair sack.  On the way to their residence, they happened upon a potter.  They prevailed upon him to carry the sack to their place, without telling him what was in it.  But on the way, John the Forerunner appeared to the potter, and told him to run away from the lazy monks, taking the sack and head with him.  The potter absconded with (the scene shown at the top of the segment above) and kept the head reverently in his home.  Eventually, before he died, he put the head into a water jar, and gave it into the keeping of his sister.

That all comprises the tale of the “First Finding,” (even though technically it includes two “findings”) — and is represented by this segment:

Here is another example of the “First Finding,” a border scene from an icon of John:

Here is a segment from a Byzantine icon showing the “First Finding.”

Note the presence in all of these of a building.


The head was kept for many years by devout Christians.  Eventually it came into the hands of a certain Eustathios/Evstatiy, who was an Arian Christian.  You may recall that Arians (who nearly became the dominant form of Christianity) held that Jesus was not God in the same sense as the Father, nor equal to him.  So later Christians looked on Arians as heretics.  When various ailments were cured by the head of John, Eustathios attributed the cures to the fact that the head was in the possession of a true-believing Arian.  But his enemies considered that blasphemy, and he was forced to flee.  So he buried the head of John in a cave near Emesa, planning to return later and retrieve it.

That did not happen, however.  A group of non-Arian monks took up residence in the cave, and eventually a monastery was constructed there.  In 452 c.e. John the Forerunner once more appeared, this time to the head of the monastery, a certain Marcellus/Markellos.  John told him where the head was hidden, and Marcellus had it unearthed (this is the “Second Finding”).  It was kept for a time in Emesa.

Here is the segment showing the “Second Finding”:

This is a border scene from an icon of John, showing the “Second Finding”:

Here is a border scene of the “Second Finding,” from a Byzantine icon:

Here is another icon — Russian — with various scenes from the tale of the “Second Finding.”  At lower center is John appearing to Markellos, and at upper center the finding of the head.  The inscription above reads ВТРОЕ ОБРЕТЕНIЕVTOROE OBRYETENIE — “Second Finding.”

The “Second Finding” is commonly represented by two figures in front of a cave.

Now in actual icons, the various findings of the head of John are often somewhat confused iconographically.  Here, for example, is a Russian icon with the cave common to icons of the Second Finding, but the title above reads “First Finding of the Head of Holy John the Forerunner.”

Thε Greek inscription on this fresco combines the interment of John’s body with the iconography of the Second Finding, but the title reads simply:


The head was then taken to Constantinople, the center of the Eastern Orthodox religio-political world.  It is said that during muslim attacks — at the time of the Iconoclastic controversy, Christians secretly removed the head from the city, taking it to a place in Abkhazia called Comana, where they hid it.  After the Seventh Ecumenical Council gave the Iconophiles victory over the Iconoclasts, a priest had a vision showing the location of the hidden head, and it was once more found (the “Third Finding”), and was returned to Constantinople.

This segment of the image shows the head in Constantinople; this image is often used to represent the “Third Finding”

Here, however, is a late Russian icon of the “Third Finding,” which as you can see, looks much like the “First Finding” in the Russian icon mentioned above — so one sees how confused the iconography of these “findings” can be:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Now oddly enough, the story then moves to the Roman Catholic West.  It is said that in 1204, Catholic soldiers, while looting Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, came upon a glass-covered human face set into a silver plate.  A Greek inscription identified the head — missing its lower jaw — as that of John the Forerunner.  The head was taken to Picardy, in France, where it was ceremonially greeted by the bishop at the gates of the city of Amiens.  In 1220 the head was placed in the Amiens Cathedral.  There it became a highly venerated relic that drew pilgrims from far and near.  In 1604, Pope Clement VIII asked for and received a piece of the head to put in the Church of St. John Lateran in Rome.

These accounts once more illustrate the importance supposed relics once had.  In fact the veneration of relics and their supposed powers helped to give rise to the acceptance of venerated icons in Eastern Orthodoxy.