Art in Lent: The Baptism of Christ

War can produce some terrible, ear-shattering sounds. The noise of shelling, quite apart from its dreadful consequences, was and is enough to unnerve, leaving soldiers trembling and, at times, catatonic. Yet conversely war is a time of great silence: of whispers between those in the know; of hiding, and stealthy movements, breaths shallow and staccato with fear.  Of great cloaking hush, waiting in the darkness for the first drone of bombers overhead. Of paranoid looking over the shoulder, using the lowest voice possible because you never know who might be listening. Of partial scraps of information from loved ones, or worse, no news at all as they retreat into memory. The silence of war is a terrible, all-embracing and smothering blanket of unknowing.

When the bells rang out for the first time after the Great War was declared over, the sound they made symbolized so much that had been lost. They shouted out, joyfully: it’s done. At great cost, yes; but this is the time for shouting, and celebrating. No more whispers in corners; no more hiding in darkness. Now is the time for crying from the rooftops, it is here! It is here! The longed-for day is here!

The Baptism of Christ marks the beginning of Jesus' public ministry; but also the end of the period of his anonymity.  God spoke from the heavens over his beloved Son. The bells rang out: the silence was broken. Yet the painting below, by Piero della Francesca, holds an immense stillness at its heart.

The Baptism of Christ: Piero della Francesca, 1450s

It stands alone in the National Gallery; although originally it was the central panel of several, with the side and bottom panels painted by another artist (Matteo di Giovanni). It is probably Piero’s oldest surviving work, and was hung as the altarpiece in his home town, Borgo Sansepolcro, in Tuscany.

We know little of Piero. He was born and died in Sansepolcro, but spent time working in Florence where presumably he met some of the great artists of the early renaissance, or at least was exposed to their work – such as Fra Angelico, Luca della Robbia and Donatello. His heritage was mixed: whilst his father was a tradesman, his mother came from Florentine nobility. He was a keen mathematician and geometer, who brought his understanding of form and perspective to his painting. In Florence he worked under Domenico Veneziano, who painted frescoes with particular attention to colour and light; this influence is seen in Piero’s solo work. Apart from this small influence he kept himself to himself, working out his own distinct style.

Like his peers, Piero wanted to depict scenes that were rooted in modern domestic life, portraying the human form with as much realism as possible whilst still having an eye on the whims of his patrons. The Baptism scene is set in a Tuscan landscape, and the small town in the background is most likely his home town of Sansepolcro. The colours of a Tuscan spring day sing out; compare this with Bellini’s baptism, painted 50 years later. The composition is very similar; yet the feel is one of gathering gloom, as John the Baptist takes a bow and fades into darkness.

The moment of baptism is often cited as one of the most explicit indications in the gospels of the doctrine of the Trinity, since Jesus, the Father and the Spirit – in the form of the dove - are all active in that one moment. So let's look at the components of Piero’s Baptism.

Firstly, it pays meticulous attention to geometry. The tree is a third of the way from the left; the dove is a third of the way from the top. Both devices make the whole more pleasing to the eye. St John’s outstretched arm mirrors his elevated left leg, so that there is a clear diagonal line. Christ, and the dove, are central; it is probable that originally there was a roundel above depicting God the Father. The curve of the hills mimic that of the arch, as do the shape of the trees.

What figures are depicted? There is Christ and John; both serene and focused. There are also three angels; a man undressing – the next to be baptised – and a gaggle of onlookers. What is the significance of all these?

In depictions of Christ’s baptism angels are often shown watching, usually three, sometimes two or four. It is a reference to the angels that came to sustain Christ after his long period of fasting in the desert; before Jesus enters the wilderness the angels accompany him to the baptism, to stand and watch. 

Piero’s angels are a curious mixture of timeless heavenly being and present-day human. Usually the angels hold the cloak of Christ as he enters the water; here they hold hands in a stance that brings to mind that of the three graces, with only one actually watching the events.

There is some thought that the angels further represent the Trinity, as do the three angels that visited Abraham (depicted most famously in Rublev’s icon). Possibly there is a more complex explanation: around ten years prior to this painting there was a fierce debate between the Eastern and Western arms of the Church over the doctrine of the Trinity, that culminated in an agreement of sorts; peace between the factions. In the three angels we see God (the white angel) bringing both parties together, over the doctrine of the Trinity. Incidentally this harmony was broken soon after the painting was completed. If so, this is a far more complicated image than it first seems, with a deep respect for the doctrine of the Trinity at its heart.

The figure undressing deliberately disrupts the calm vertical lines, bringing both a diagonal that echoes that of John’s leg as well as a welcome messiness to an otherwise overly still and tidy picture. Christ is one of a number coming for baptism; humbly offering himself, in the same way as other penitents. In the crowd behind there may well have been familiar faces to those who saw the painting for the first time – that of his patron? His friends? Himself? Piero is thought to have placed self-portraits in other works, including ‘The Resurrection’ – perhaps his most famous painting. In casting himself as a Roman soldier he is not seeking to elevate himself, but to identify with those responsible for the death of Christ. It reminds me of the works of Stanley Spencer, often set in his Berkshire village of Cookham. 

Spencer’s ‘Crucifixion’ shows Golgotha as a rubbish pile in the high street, with all the locals leaning out of windows to watch. The implication is clear: Golgotha is now. And we are all implicated. In Piero’s painting, God comes to his patch of Earth; both the joy of revelation and the tragedy of the human sin that necessitated Christ’s sacrifice are on our watch. And are that line of people, richly dressed, actually walking away without offering themselves for baptism?

The dove is foreshortened, an artifice in order to make it appear like one of the clouds. There is perhaps a suggestion of uncertainty – is it real? Did it happen? Did we see it, or was it a trick of the light? This seems such a quiet moment – not even the angels are giving their full attention, much less those standing behind. Yet in the gospels we are not told if the voice from heaven is loud or soft – a mighty declaration or a gentle kiss upon the brow. So many times in the gospels there is a hush-hush moment – seen in the nativity, a baby born not in a palace but a stable; in the many admonishments ‘not to tell anyone about me’; even to his own mother, Jesus said ‘my time has not come’. Yet to me this moment – along with that of the Transfiguration – expresses a noisy joy, disregarding any need for propriety or caution. ‘This is my beloved Son’, shouts the Father, ‘in whom I am well pleased’. It’s the bells ringing out at the end of war time; it’s the letter home from the long-lost soldier. And this comes at the start; all Jesus had done was grow up. Later, at the Transfiguration, when God again spoke from heaven calling Jesus his beloved Son, the words may be seen to be celebrating all that has been done; or readying Christ for the final push, the equivalent of the pep talk before going over the top. But here, at the beginning of his ministry, God is delighting in who Jesus is, not in what he has done.

Of course, the missing figure in this panel is that of God the Father, although his presence is hinted at in the three angels and may have been depicted in a separate panel above. Renaissance art did not shy away from imagining the Father, usually depicting a strong but stern bearded man floating on a cloud; or sometimes a pair of disembodied hands, as if the picture has been cut off, like a badly framed photograph. Such images may look rather antiquated to us, and alien to our understanding of the God who is neither male nor female, despite imagery of a father. 

I like this modern baptism of Christ, by Daniel Bonnell, in which the father seems absent – until you realize he is in the colour and radiance all around Jesus. Christ is baptized in the very essence of God, infused with his being. Is this something that is on offer to all of humanity?



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