The Wild Tale of How John the Baptist’s Head Ended Up in France’s Largest Cathedral

On the evening of Sept. 8, 1206, Walon de Sarton, a minor cleric who had participated in the crusader capture of Constantinople in April 1204, made an astonishing discovery. As a canon of the church of Saint George Mangana along the water at the southeastern part of the city, he should have participated in the vespers service. But he had just returned from military maneuvers as part of the effort to secure control of the countryside wrested from the Byzantine or Greek leaders after the French and German knights who had participated in the fourth crusade had failed to reach their original goal of recapturing the Muslim-​controlled city of Jerusalem and had turned upon the Christian city of Constantinople instead. Walon had not had time to shave or to tonsure his hair. This was no small matter. A Church council held at Toulouse in 1119 prescribed excommunication for any cleric who, “like a layman, allowed hair and beard to grow.” The current Pope Alexander III decreed that the churchman with excessively long hair or beard was to be shorn, by force if necessary. So, Walon hesitated to enter the choir with his fellow clerics.

In an alcove between the main altar and a building “where,” according to his own testimony, “no living creature lived,” a former pleasure palace of emperors, he had hoped to recite his prayers discreetly when his eyes fell upon a window stuffed with straw and other stray matter. Someone clearly had wanted to hide something but had neither the time nor the materials to seal the opening with mortar. In the pillaging of the Byzantine capital, there had been many such attempts to conceal precious secular and religious objects from the avid French and Venetian raiders. Removing the straw, Walon found a vase containing the remains of a finger and an arm, with other objects further in the recess.

Reaching beyond the vase, he felt two leather pouches, and, opening them, two large silver plates. In the safety of his room, he looked at the two silver dishes and noticed that each contained fragments of writing in Greek. On one, the inscription, “ΑΓΙΟΣ ΓΕΟΡΓΙΟΣ,” and, on the other, “ΑΓΙΟΣ ΙΟΑΝΝΗΣ ΠΡΟΔΡΟΜΟΣ.” Neither understanding Greek nor wanting to ask anyone for help, for fear of revealing what he had found, Walon wandered from church to church in Constantinople until he came upon images with similar letters. Imagine his surprise at learning that his discovery of the evening of September 8 was none other than the heads of Saint George and of Saint John the Baptist, as indicated by the word “ΠΡΟΔΡΟΜΟΣ,” “Precursor.” John, whose own birth was shrouded in mystery, proclaimed the arrival of Christ whom he baptized in the River Jordan before himself meeting a violent death at the hands of King Herod. The Gospels of Luke, Mark, and Matthew contain the story of John’s rebuke of King Herod for having put aside his legitimate wife and taken his brother’s wife, Herodias, who was angry at the reproach and repeatedly sought revenge. In the course of a banquet in or around the year 30 CE, Herod was captivated by the dancing of Herodias’s daughter Salome and offered her the reward of her choice. Salome, consulting her mother, asked for the head of John the Baptist, who was already in Herod’s prison, on a platter. In the cycle of the life of Christ, there is no more important figure than John the Baptist, no more sacred object than the head that had announced in real time the coming of the Messiah.

Holding the two sacred sacks in his hands, Walon faced a dilemma. In order to avoid the disorder of wild pillaging and to ensure equal distribution of booty, the crusaders had in the month before their successful assault upon the richest city in the world sworn an oath that liturgical objects—​relics, crosses, icons, platters, and other vessels—​should be placed in a common stockpile to be distributed under the supervision of Bishop Garnier of Troyes according to the “quality and merit” of individual knights, squires, and clerics. Not all had complied, of course. As one of the leaders of the fourth crusade and its most vivid chronicler, Marshal of Champagne Geoffrey Villehardouin, noted, “Some were honest in presenting their spoils, others deceitful,” risking excommunication by the Pope or even execution: “a good number were hanged.”

Walon had at the outset been one of the good ones. Having come into possession of the head of Saint Christopher, the arm of Saint Eleuthere, and the relics of several “other joyous saints,” he returned them to the general store and received nothing in return. He must have known that others had fewer scruples than he did and that they had provided for themselves the kind of generous homecoming that the heads of Saints George and John the Baptist might afford him. He might even have witnessed the defilement of holy objects in the most sacred of places, the church of Hagia Sophia, built by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century as the cathedral of Constantinople and the largest and most elaborate building on earth. So great was the haul that the marauding crusaders, in the words of Niketas Choniates, the aristocratic former imperial secretary, brought into “the very sanctuary of the temple itself mules and asses with pack saddles; some of these, unable to keep their feet on the smoothly polished marble floors, slipped and were pierced by knives so that the excrement from the bowels and the spilled blood defiled the sacred floor.” All who were there remarked upon the extraordinary quantity of church possessions that were looted in the aftermath of 1204.

Given the extraordinary nature of his discovery, Walon made a decision. Separating the smaller bejeweled plates, which contained portions of the heads of Saints George and John the Baptist, from the larger silver plates on which they were mounted, he crossed the commercial districts formerly occupied by the Genoese, Amalfitan, and Pisan traders in Constantinople, to the Venetian quarter, which had dominated trade between Byzantium and the West since the Conquest. There Walon sold the fungible portion of his findings. He now had enough money for the journey home, and the smaller size of the bundles he would be carrying made the relics easier to hide. But Walon apparently felt guilty, and so he vowed to dedicate to pious works any money in excess of what would be needed for travel back to Picardie.

On September 30, 1206, with sacred loot under each arm, Walon headed for one of the Venetian-​controlled harbors between the city wall and the Golden Horn. As he emerged from the city gate, he could see the warehouses and shops, the money-​changing stalls and the taverns along the “steps” between the wall and the water. On one side of the deep curved port, he observed ships loading and unloading their commercial goods; on the other, the shipbuilding yard and the enclosure reserved for the manufacture of oars. On the far shore of the inlet, Walon caught a last glimpse of the Galata tower which, until the arrival of the crusaders in Constantinople, had been the place from which the iron chain across the harbor was controlled and was the first structure to fall under crusader attack.

When Walon boarded the ship for Venice, he was not traveling alone. His companion, a fellow cleric named Wibert, had been the chaplain of Aleaumes de Fontaines, a knight who had participated in the sacking of Constantinople but who had died in Greece in 1205. Wibert, too, was carrying relics back to a church near Amiens, the Abbey of Longpré. Walon’s and Wibert’s ship, one of the mixed genre combining sails with rowers, not a ship designed for the open seas, but for island and coastal hopping, sailed through the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles. Having alighted for only one night at the island and coastal natural ports along the way, the travelers to Venice probably spent several days on Crete while the crew rested, merchants on board bought wheat, wine, cheese, and wool, and sold spices picked up in Constantinople. The boat was no doubt reloaded with grain, oil, meat, eggs, dried fish, and especially with barrels of water for the trip against adverse winds and currents around the Peloponnesian peninsula and up the Adriatic. The voyage, managed until then mostly under sail, would now periodically require the manpower of rowers, and rowing required hydration.

Walon’s ship hugged the Balkan coast up the Adriatic, which was much more favorable than the Italian side, the lee shore toward which ships were naturally blown. The travelers reached Venice thirty days after setting out from Constantinople. They had made good time. The distance between the two ports is 1169 nautical miles, which meant that they had travelled thirty-​nine miles per day. The average October day in the region provided twelve hours of sunlight, which put their average speed at a little over three miles per hour, perhaps even a little more, considering layovers in major trading and supply ports.

The port of Venice bustled with the trading and military energy of its newfound empire which stretched all along the route that Walon and Wibert had traveled. They were anxious to begin their overland journey to Picardie. Once ferried from Venice to the mainland, they retraced the route they had taken almost five years earlier. Crossing the Veneto and Lombardy, they arrived around the middle of the month of November in Piacenza, where crusaders from the North as well as from the West had originally assembled on their way to Venice in 1202. They pushed on to Asti, Chieri, and Turin, then to Susa at the foot of the mountains where they traversed into what is now France via the Mont-​Cenis pass.

The returning crusaders headed north and, skirting the Lac du Bourget, turned west to the towns of Belley and Saint Rambert, currently Saint-​Rambert-​en-​Bugey where Walon reports that they were robbed, losing some of jewels they had brought from Constantinople but not the holy head. They crossed the Ain river and then the Saône, probably at the bridge at Chalon-​sur-​Saône, which took them through rich wine country, past Beaune, Nuits-​Saint-​Georges, Vosne-​Romanée, Chambolle-​Musigny, and Gevrey-​Chambertin, to Dijon, and from Dijon to Châtillon-​sur-​Seine, and on to Troyes. It was a day’s ride to Noyon, then to Roye, and another day to Beaufort-​en-​Santerre where Walon sent word to his uncle Pierre de Sarton of his return bearing one of the most sacred and prestigious relics ever to arrive in the West.

Pierre, a canon of the cathedral of Amiens, alerted Bishop Richard de Gerberoy, who sent a delegation to meet Walon at Beaufort, some twelve miles from the center of the city. On December 17, 1206, an assembly of clergy and representatives of all the various constituencies of Amiens accompanied Walon to the gates of town. There, they were met, according to the returning clerical hero, by the bishop, “dressed pontifically, and by the all the clergy, followed by a great rush of townspeople who, with all imaginable demonstrations of joy, broke out into hymns, canticles, and other prayers, all sung in honor of the Precursor. . . .” The head of Saint John the Baptist, having been taken out of hiding in Constantinople, smuggled by ship to Venice, and then overland along the most frequented trade routes of Europe, arrived at last in Amiens. As seen in this quatrefoil relief, Bishop Gerberoy took the sacred head of Saint John the Baptist in his hands and carried it into the church of Saint Firmin where it remained until the building of the great cathedral that still stands today.

Regardless of its reality, the arrival of the head of John the Baptist in Amiens coincided with the construction of a new cathedral in the Gothic style. As elsewhere, the story of building is one of fires. The town was destroyed by flames in the twelfth century, and a Romanesque cathedral was built between 1137 and 1152. That church was devastated in 1218 by another fire, like that of Chartres in 1194, of dubious origin. Amiens had gained enormous prestige with the arrival of the face relic of Saint John in 1206, yet a cathedral in the old Romanesque style was not sufficiently forward-​looking in light of the new Gothic churches begun in Paris in 1163, Soissons in 1176, Chartres in 1194, and Reims in 1211. There was tremendous pressure to rebuild, and the laying of the equivalent of a cornerstone, a masonry block on the southern transept with the outline of a Dutch trowel, only two years after the fire of 1218, indicates a welcome readiness of funds, communal will, and urban initiative, all coordinated in this initial phase by two bishops—​Évrard de Fouilly (d. 1222), described on his tombstone on the south part of the nave as “He who provided for the people, who laid the foundations of this edifice, to whose care the city was entrusted,” and Geoffroy d’Eu (d. 1236), who lies on the north side, on a “humble bed, in preparation for a lesser or an equal one for us all.” The enterprising builder-​bishops negotiated a complicated plan for the urban renewal of thirteenth-​century Amiens. The collegial school of Saint Firmin the Confessor and the hospital or Hôtel Dieu were displaced in order to align the towers of the new cathedral along the old Roman road between Senlis and the port of Boulogne.

A metal plaque at the center of the labyrinth in the nave of Notre-​Dame d’Amiens—​one of only two, along with that of Chartres—​provides the names of the architects or master masons who supervised the work and attests to its rapidity: “In the year of grace one thousand two hundred and twenty was the work herein first begun. At that time Evrard was the blessed bishop of this bishopric and Louis King of France, who was the son of Philip the Wise (Philip Augustus). The one who was master builder was Master Robert, whose surname was Luzarches. It was Master Thomas de Cormont after him, and after him, his son Master Renaud who had these letters placed here, in the year of Incarnation 1300, minus 12 (1288).” Because of the speed with which first the transept, then the nave and apse, were completed, conditions favoring unity of design and execution, Amiens is considered by some to be the most perfect of French cathedrals—“the Parthenon of Gothic architecture,” in the phrase of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-​le-​Duc, who contributed to its restoration in the 1850s. Notre-​Dame d’Amiens is also the biggest cathedral of the thirteenth century—​475 feet long, 230 feet wide through the transept, and 140 feet high under the vaults of the nave. Only Beauvais, at 158 feet, is higher, but was never completed beyond the transept crossing and choir.

Adapted from Paris and Her Cathedrals by R. Howard Bloch. Copyright © 2022 by R. Howard Bloch. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Source link

Leave a Comment