The body of Saint John the Baptist was buried in the Samaritan city of Sebaste. The holy Evangelist Luke, who went preaching Christ in various cities and towns, came to Sebaste, where they gave him the right hand of the holy Prophet John, the very hand with which he had baptized the Savior. The Evangelist Luke took it with him to his native city of Antioch.
When the Muslims seized Antioch centuries later, a deacon named Job brought the holy hand of the Forerunner from Antioch to Chalcedon by order of Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 945-959). From there, on the eve of the Theophany of the Lord, it was transferred to Constantinople (956) and kept thereafter in the royal palace. St. Nikolai Velimirovich writes in his Prologue: “It is said that every year on the feast of the saint, the bishop brought the hand of St. John before the people. Sometimes the hand appeared open and other times the hand appeared clenched. In the first case it signified a fruitful and bountiful year and, in the second case, it meant a year of unfruitfulness and famine.” Initially this miracle occurred annually on the 14th of September, which is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The hand would rise at times, flexing or clenching its fingers. Becaue it was believed to predict future happiness or misfortune, many sovereigns tried to possess it as a priceless treasure, especially Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 945-959) and his son the Emperor Romanos II (r. 959-963). This was one reason why the relic was kept in the imperial palace. The Synaxis of St. John took place in the Phorakion.*
In the year 1200, the Russian pilgrim Dobrynya, who later became St Anthony, Archbishop of Novgorod (February 10), saw the right hand of the Forerunner in the imperial palace. From the Lives of the Saints we learn that in the year 1263, during the capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders, the emperor Baldwin gave one bone from the wrist of St John the Baptist to Ottonus de Cichon, who then gave it to a Cistercian abbey in France.
The right hand continued to be kept in Constantinople. And at the end of the fourteenth to the beginning of the fifteenth centuries, the holy relic was seen at Constantinople in the Peribleptos monastery by the Russian pilgrims Stephen of Novgorod, the deacon Ignatius, the cantor Alexander and the deacon Zosimus. When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, sacred objects were gathered up at the the conqueror’s orders and kept under lock in the Ottoman imperial treasury.
In the Lives of the Saints there is clear testimony that in the year 1484 the right hand of the Holy Forerunner was given away by the son of the Muslim sultan Bayazet to the Knights of Rhodes to gain their good will, since a dangerous rival for Bayazet, his own brother, had allied himself with them. A contemporary participant, the vice-chancellor of Rhodes, Wilhelm Gaorsan Gallo, also speaks of this event. The Knights of Rhodes, having established their base on the island of Malta (in the Mediterranean Sea), then transferred the sacred relic they had received to Malta.
When the Russian Tsar Paul I (1796-1801) became Grand Master of the Maltese Order in honor of the holy Prophet John, the right hand of the Baptist, part of the Life-Giving Cross and the Philermos Icon (October 12) of the Mother of God (from Mt Philermos on the island of Rhodes) were transferred in 1799 from the island of Malta to Russia [because of the Napoleonic threat], to the chapel at Gatchina (October 12). In the same year these sacred items were transferred into the church dedicated to the Icon of the Savior Not Made by Hands at the Winter Palace. A special service was composed for this Feast.
Portions of St. John’s right hand, with which he baptised Jesus, is said to be in the possession of the Serbian Orthodox Cetinje Monastery in Montenegro, and also at the Romanian Skete of the Forerunner on Mount Athos as well. Another relic of his forearm is in a glass display case at the Seraglio (Topkapi Soray), which had been the palace of the Ottoman sultans in Constantinople following the Fall of the City.
It is not known how the portion of St. John’s right hand came to be at Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos. What we do know is that somehow in the first years of the 19th century the advisor to Prussia in Constantinople, John Frangopoulos, was in possession of this relic and he adorned it with jewels. On 10 March 1802 it was brought (or returned) to Dionysiou Monastery through the efforts of its abbot, Joachim Agiostratiti. This event is commemorated annually by the Monastery on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent with an all-night vigil.
*Saint John was exceedingly venerated at Constantinople, where he had thirty-six churches and monasteries dedicated to his memory, of which the most famous was the Studios; others were Lips, the Prodromos in Petra, and in Sphorakion, etc. The Monastery of Phoverou on the Asiatic Shore of the Bosporos was also dedicated to the Forerunner. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, s.v. “John the Baptist”.
by John Sanidopoulos