Today commemorates the Passion of John the Baptist, marking a somber and violent end to a life that was instrumental to the foundation of the Church. Father Steve Grunow examines the circumstances surrounding St. John's beheading, and how they illuminate a depraved side of his executors that is often overlooked.
I remember with great fondness childhood visits to the Art Institute of Chicago with my father. Those visits instilled in me a sense of the importance of the arts and an abiding appreciation for the beautiful as a route of access to God. But, those visits also taught me something else about the macabre sensibilities of Catholic art. Some of the paintings that made the greatest impression were hardly pretty pictures. One was Bernat Martorelli’s “St. George and the Dragon” (of note were the skeletal remains of the dragon’s victims splayed out at the bottom of the painting) and six paintings by Giovanni di Paolo that detailed significant events in the life of St. John the Baptist.
If I remember correctly, the startling finale to these panels was the execution of the saint, which had poor St. John’s body positioned as leaning out of a window and captured as if in the moment right after his head had been lopped off. Crimson blood runs down the bottom of the windowsill. The saint’s decapitated head seemed to have been caught like a tossed basketball by a cooperative servant. Vivid. Better than anything I had come across in a horror movie.
The passage of time has taught me that what is most memorable about the story of the death of John the Baptist is simply not the gruesome detail from di Paolo’s painting that had captured my childish imagination. The tale of John’s terrifying demise is expressed succinctly in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark; both are chilling and perceptive accounts of human cruelty and cultural dysfunction....