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The Baptism of Christ

The Baptism of Christ

Piero della Francesca. (1416-1492). The National Gallery – London.

In due course John the Baptist appeared. He proclaimed this message in the desert of Judaea: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is close at hand.” This man John wore a garment made of camelhair with a leather loincloth round his waist and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judaea and the whole Jordan district made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins G38 .
Then Jesus appeared; he came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. John tried to dissuade him, with the words: "It is I who need baptism from you, and yet you come to me?” But Jesus replied: “Leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that uprightness demands.” Then John gave in to him.
And when Jesus had been baptised he at once came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And suddenly there was a voice from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved, my favour rests on him.” G38

These are the words of Matthew. They have been eternalised by Piero della Francesca in a picture that is so mathematically exact as to fix in time and space once and for all the scene that was the beginning of Jesus’ public life. Images of the Baptism after this picture could never attain the force and definite view of Piero. The picture is so well known as to be trivial to present here.

Piero della Francesca was born around 1416 to 1420 in Borgo San Sepolchro of Umbria, Italy. His real name was Pietro di Benedetto di Franceschi. When exactly he started to paint is difficult to establish, but he was active as a painter from around 1440 to about 1492. His teacher was Domenico Veneziano, the Venetian. Among Piero’s pupils were Bramante, the architect of Saint Peter ‘s in Rome, Pietro Perugino and Luca Signorelli. He knew Leon Battista Alberti, the architect who defined the basic elements of Renaissance architecture. Piero worked all over Italy, in his hometown first, then in Ferrara, Rome, and Rimini. He worked for Duke Federico de Montefeltro in Urbino, and also painted in Florence and Arezzo. He made marvellous frescoes in this last town, a series of the true story of the Holy Cross according to a narration of the Golden Legend. Piero also coloured in tempera and in oil and his ‘Baptism’ contains both techniques. He stopped painting around 1470, probably to dedicate his mind and skill to perspective and mathematics.

Jesus stands in the Jordan and John pours water over his head. The action is caught like an instant photograph: drops of water fall over Jesus and are shown in mid fall. Angels stand to the left. To the right are believers that have come to be baptised by John. They also are caught by the instant since one is getting out of his shirt next to the river. Jesus is standing in the geometric middle of the painting. The dove of the Holy Spirit is exactly above Christ and also at the middle point of the half circle that forms the upper part of the frame. The dove represents the Trinity, a theme that Piero absorbed in various pictures. The three angels that stand on the left also hint at the Trinity. The angels are painted in the three colours of the Trinity: white, blue and red. This left part of the painting represents the sacred part whereas all the disciples that have come to be baptised, in the scene’s worldly part, are on the right.

Christ’s folded arms form a triangle the top of which is in the middle of the dove. This triangle has as its base the lower base of the frame. This triangle gives the impression of a receding perspective as one would find in architectural drawings. The man bowing on the left brings a line that ends also in the dove. Jesus’ hands are again held in the middle line. John and the tree are symmetrical to Christ and at equal distances from the sides. Jesus’ navel is at exactly half the distance between the lower border of the frame and the dove. Thus the full circle of which the upper half forms the frame would pass through Jesus’ navel. The middle angel of the left is exactly in the middle of distance between the frame and the main tree. Other triangles can be drawn in the painting.

Piero della Francesco used proportions of whole numbers in his painting. The panel is sub-divided in three equal parts in its height. The half circle is in the upper one-third. The horizontal line through Jesus’ navel separated the lower rectangle of the frame in two equal parts. So proportions of 1/3 and 2/3 can be discerned. The middle of the tree is at a distance of 3/5 from the left border of the frame to the middle vertical line and so is the mine that goes through John the Baptist’s standing leg. The triangle formed by Jesus’ hands goes down to the line of the frame and is about 3/5 in length of that base. The height of the white angel is about 3/5 of the height of the rectangular panel. All these proportions are approximately those of the Golden Section. The Golden Section is a section of a line segment such that the smallest part of the section stands to the largest part as that largest part to the whole segment. In integer numbers the proportion is about 3/5. The Golden Section was thought to represent the basic aesthetic harmony.

So Piero della Francesca drew many lines first on the canvas and then based his figures and other elements along these lines. He may well have believed in the mysterious power of numbers and he may have been a Late Medieval man in that. He was indeed obsessed with numbers and geometry and the lines, numbers and triangles in this ‘Baptism of Christ’ are so obvious as to not have been possible by chance. That is at least true for the easiest divisions. Whereas for the Golden Section numbers, Piero may have come to these positions also by his own intuition for these can indeed be arrived at by chance. Three-fifth or 60% of a distance is a natural place to position figures because ¾ or 75% or even 2/3 or 66% is too large in general. The proportions of the Golden Section have often been used in paintings, but most often this was by natural choice.

Many of the colours used by Piero della Francesca have changed over time, so also in this picture. Piero painted a first layer of green, the ‘verdaccio’ for the bodies and faces and this colour shows through after the ages. The bodies in the picture are almost translucent. Bright blue and red can be found in the angels, but the gold in their wings has disappeared. Piero has put a lush green Tuscan landscape in the background. We see however that his strength was in geometry, in perspective and in the figures because this landscape as compared to a Patenier for instance could lack imagination. But the prominent tree is a walnut tree, one of the symbols of Christ. Also the river Jordan is not much of the wide and sometimes wild stream it really is. Again simply the water was enough as a symbol for John the Baptist and for Christ since Jesus told he was the water of life. The important idea for Piero was the spiritual meaning of the Baptism and of the Trinity. This was an eternal concept, so he tried to capture this in an instance of time by exact geometry and by applying symbolic elements.

Piero believed in the mystics of numbers. The ‘Baptism of Christ’ thus became an icon, a symbol in its own right. Piero’s ‘Baptism’ is an attempt to transfix the religious concept of the act of the baptism of Jesus, the most important rite of passage, in immutable proportions. While doing that however, he succeeded in making a picture caught in action. Here is a wonder of the most rigorous static and impression of action in strict harmony.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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