The Death of St. John the Baptist

Circa 1200
Fresco
Church of St. John the Baptist, Müstair, Switzerland

Much of the plaster from the fresco has fallen away, revealing another layer of frescoes beneath. According to the church guidebook the original layer was done in about 800, and the newer one was laid over it in about 1200.

On the left the executioner is beheading the saint. In the center, we see first Salome's somersaulting dance (with musicians in the background), then Salome bringing the head of John the Baptist to her mother and Herod. On the right, John's disciples carry the head and body away for burial. Farther to the right is this panel:
Last rites for the body of John the Baptist The body is laid in a sarcophagus and the last rites are performed in a manner typical of Christian burials: on the left the tonsured priest censes the body and reads from a ritual book, while on the right the weeping man holds a processional cross.

The Golden Legend's account, which is a bit later than the date of the newer layer, has it that John's disciples buried only the body, while Herodias kept the head and buried it in another place. There is very likely a literary source for this fresco's placing the head and body together, but I have not yet found one.

In the central scene the head is not on the usual platter but in a sort of footed bowl. In the Greek of Mark 6:25 Salome asks for John's head επιπινακι, "on a plate." The Latin is in disco, literally a "disc" but described in Peter Comestor's Historia Scholastica as a vas rotundum desuper valde extentum, "a very wide round vessel." Peter's description was written about thirty years before these frescoes were painted, so it could derive from pictures or texts that also led the present artist to portray the discus as a kind of bowl.

The artist also chose to echo the design of the bowl in the vessels on Herod's table. Considering the presence of the crucifix and altar before the fresco, the artist or the donor may thus have intended to suggest Herod's feast as a precursor to the sacrifice of Christ and consumption of his body in the Mass.

Main image in full resolution
Far right panel in full resolution
Detail of the carrying of the body

More of St. John the Baptist

Photographed at the church by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.