St. John’s right hand, formerly of Malta.


Over the altar in the Oratory of the former Conventual Church of San Giovanni (since 1813, the Co-Cathedral of St. John) in Valletta, capital city of the Republic of Malta is a special monstrance made at the expense of the Grand Master Caraffa, which formerly preserved the most highly prized relic of this church, viz. the right hand of St. John the Baptist: This was the very hand with which he had baptized our Saviour Jesus Christ.  


Today the hand is situated at the Dionysiou monastery which is an Eastern Orthodox monastery at the self-governing monastic state of Mount Athos within the sovereignty of the Hellenic Republic (Greece). The monastery ranks fifth in the hierarchy of the Athonite monasteries. 


However, a similar claim is made by the Cetinje Monastery in Montenegro. 


It appears that the difference arose sometime after the capitulation of Malta and the Order of St. John to the French in 1798.


This is the story of the right hand. (The whereabouts of the left hand is another issue claimed by Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and the Monastery of St. Macarius in Egypt; other bits and pieces of the Saint have turned up in other parts of the world).


St. John was imprisoned and beheaded on King Herod’s orders. 


According to most sources, he was buried in Sebaste (or Sevastia). On the other hand, the Coptic Orthodox Church has long maintained that the Saint was buried in Scetes, Egypt. In fact according to manuscripts from the 11th & 16th centuries found in the library of the Monastery of St. Macarius at Scetis (Wadi Natrun), as well as ecclesiastical tradition, the crypts of St. John the Baptist and Elisha the Prophet were discovered during restoration works. (A detailed account of this discovery and an assessment of the authenticity of the relics has been published by the monastery, but is not repeated here so as to remain consistent with the tradition held by the Church in Malta). 


Following the ‘Sebeste’ tradition, it is maintained that eventually the people of that town gave the dismembered right hand of St. John to St. Luke who took it with him to Antioch. It is reported that the relic would be brought out and shown to the faithful on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14). If the fingers of the hand were open, it was interpreted as a sign of a bountiful year, if the hand was closed it would be a poor harvest (September 1 was the beginning of the liturgical year and the harvest season).


When the Muslims seized that town centuries later, a deacon named Job transported the hand from Antioch to Chalcedon. From there, it was transferred in A.D.956 (7 January) to Constantinople in a church built expressly for its reception.


An account by the Russian pilgrim Dobrynya (later St Anthony, Archbishop of Novgorod), describes how in the year 1200, he saw the right hand 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.


Meanwhile, the right hand continued to be kept in Constantinople and between the 14th-15th  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. Other sources maintain that it was transported to Jerusalem.


When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, sacred objects were gathered up at the conqueror's orders and kept under lock in the Ottoman imperial treasury. In the "Lives of the Saints" there is a clear testimony that in the year 1484 the hand was given away by the son of the Muslim sultan Bayazet to the Grand Master D'Aubusson 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. 


When the knights were expelled from Rhodes L'Isle Adam conveyed the precious relic to Malta. By then, it was already encased in gold, and adorned with many precious stones. By its side with many other votive offerings was a costly diamond ring. This Napoleon appropriated, but returned the hand itself (not the jewels) to the Grand Master Hompesch, who carried it away with him. 


When the Russian Tsar Paul I (1796-1801) became Grand Master of the Order, the hand of the Baptist, together with part of the Life-Creating Cross and the Philermos Icon of the Mother of God (from Mt Philermos on the island of Rhodes) were transferred in 1799 (12 October) to Russia, first to the chapel at the Imperial City of Gatchina (where the Order was officially situated) and later in the same year then to the church dedicated to the "Icon of the Saviour Not Made by Hands" at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. 


According to the Athonite source, 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 and the hand was taken to the Dionysiou Monastery through the efforts of its abbot, Joachim Agiostratiti. 


According to the Montenegrin source, after the Russian revolution of 1917, the hand and the icon were taken out of Russia by Empress Maria Fyodorovna, mother of the last Russian Emperor Nicholas, who kept the relics until her death and her daughters gave the relics to Russian Metropolitan Antonije (Hrapovicky) who first placed the relics in the Orthodox church in Berlin and later moved them to Serbia (Sremski Karlovci) entrusted them to King Aleksandar Karadjordjevi?. The relics were preserved in the Church of St. Andrija Prvozvani in Dedinje (Belgrade). King Petar II presented them to the Ostrog Monastery but the war motivated an archimandrite to hide them. The Montenegrin state authorities discovered the relics in 1978 and delivered the hand of St. John the Baptist to Cetinje Monastery, while the icon was entrusted to the Cetinje National Museum.


Meanwhile the Oratory in Malta remains hand-less.