Like the rest of us, John the Baptist probably only had one head. Yet at least four religious sites across the world claim to possess the skull of the influential Christian figure.
John the Baptist was more than a preacher, he was the man who baptized Jesus. Often called the forerunner of Christ, the Bible says John the Baptist was actually Jesus's cousin. Much like his prophetic relative, John the Baptist died for his beliefs.
Accounts of John the Baptist's death vary but one aspect of his demise is ingrained in Christian tradition—his beheading. But what happened to his head? That depends on who you ask, thanks to a robust trade in religious relics during the Middle Ages.
The death of John the Baptist—and the rise of the relics trade
The three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) agree that John the Baptist was beheaded on the order of Herod Antipas, the leader of Galilee. According to Matthew 14, Herod imprisoned John the Baptist because the preacher had criticized his marriage to his brother's former wife, Herodias. When Herodias prompted her daughter Salome to ask Herod for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, her stepfather granted her wish.
After John the Baptist was beheaded, his body was reportedly buried at Sebastia, in modern Palestine. Yet his head was discovered and reburied multiple times over subsequent centuries, making its way across the region with little agreement as to when, where, and how.
As Christianity expanded through antiquity and the early Middle Ages, so did the trade in relics—tangible and sacred objects from the past that served as reminders and symbols of Christian devotion. The medieval trade for these in-demand items was lucrative, as was the possibility of benefaction simply by possessing a relic.
A classification system for Christian relics emerged based on their level of importance. Among the relics of the highest order was John the Baptist's head. It was a piece of a venerated figure, a link to the holiest of men. Ambiguity regarding what happened to John the Baptist's head allowed for numerous stories and traditions regarding its fate. This, in turn, led to multiple claims over its possession.
During the Middle Ages, the Knights Templar, Crusaders, and faithful devotees all claimed to possess John the Baptist's head. As a result, numerous heads soon existed simultaneously. This remains true today, with no fewer than four prominent claims vying for supremacy.
Four heads across Christendom
The first of the four heads of John the Baptist is in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, built atop a Christian church that once bore the name of the martyr. Christian and Islamic traditions hold that his head was buried at the original church that dates to the end of the fourth century. When Umayyad Caliph al-Walid I founded the mosque at the site during the early eighth century, the head was purportedly incorporated into one of its columns.
At the Residenz Museum in Munich, Germany, a reliquary—a container for relics—supposedly serves as home to John the Baptist's head. The relic is part of an extensive collection once possessed by Duke Wilhelm V and his son, Maximilian I, of Bavaria. The museum claims the pope gave Wilhelm V permission to acquire relics in 1577 but it’s unclear when this particular holy head might have entered his possession.
San Silvestro in Capite, a Catholic basilica in Rome, claims to hold the top part of John the Baptist's skull—minus his jaw. The church became home to relics of saints and martyrs from the Roman catacombs by the ninth century and, as a result, John the Baptist's head has been one of many relics present at the site since at least the late 12th century.
The fourth head of John the Baptist has been incorporated into one of the cornerstones of the cathedral in Amiens, France. The head arrived by way of a relatively common route during the Middle Ages: When Walon de Sarton, a priest from a church in Picardy, returned from the Crusades in 1206, he brought with him several holy relics—including the head of John the Baptist that he said he’d found in Constantinople.
A gash over the skull’s right eyebrow gave credence to Walon's claims because Herodias had inflicted a comparable wound on the martyr's head.
Walon gave the head to the bishop, Richard de Gerberoy, in 1206. When the existing cathedral was built years later, the head of John the Baptist served as the centerpiece of the new structure—a necessity given the Church’s decree as early as 787 that if “any bishop is found out consecrating a church without relics, let him be deposed as someone who has flouted the ecclesiastical traditions."
The presence of John the Baptist's head in Amiens was not only essential, it was a boon for the local church. Such a esteemed relic made Amiens a prominent pilgrimage site as well as a location visited by members of the highest echelons of society.
More claims to John the Baptist's remains
There are still other modern claims to parts of John the Baptist's head and body. Topkapi Palace in Istanbul claims to have John the Baptist's right arm, which he used to baptize Jesus, and possibly part of his skull too. The cathedral chapel dedicated to John the Baptist in Siena, Italy, also claims to have the venerated man's right arm.
Contested claims to the head of John the Baptist are just one example of how faith and myth around holy remains developed during the Middle Ages. Absent genetic data from a biblical or holy figure, it's likely impossible to ever definitively authenticate any relic, including those of John the Baptist. In his case, difficulty in tracing the path of his head from the moment it separated from his body adds another layer of uncertainty—and it’s entirely possible that none of John the Baptist's heads are that of the holy man at all.