From Giotto to Rubens: The Baptism of the Lord in Painting

The earliest pictorial representations of the Baptism of the Lord were carved in stone, on Christian sarcophagi. Later, during the long Middle Ages, stone reliefs of this scene are found above church entrances or sometimes in the interior, always carved as fragments of broader Gospel narratives. Monumental paintings on walls, panels, or canvas become more common only in the Renaissance, once painting as a medium gains greater appreciation. A certain degree of parallelism can be drawn between changes in the sacramental practice of the Church and developments in the iconography of the Baptism. However, the artistic composition of the scenes remains essentially unchanged through the centuries and mirrors the Synoptic Gospels. Interest of the commentary here is focused on several of the most accomplished paintings of the Baptism of the Lord from the beginning of the 14th century until roughly middle of the 17th century. All the works shown here were intended for church or chapel interiors, although some of them have since been separated from their intended site and are currently housed in museums. What connects these works is ingenuity of representation that remains faithful to the Scriptures yet also displays development of an abundant and nuanced pictorial and symbolic material.

Master of St. Bartholomew Altar. Baptism of the Lord. Oil on panel, circa 1485-1500.
The retrospective commences non-chronologically, at the very end of the 15th century with the exuberant production by Master of St. Bartholomew Altar, who remains an anonymous artist and who very well might have been a Carthusian monk. The style of the painting is International Gothic and dates from between 1485 to 1500 A.D. At the center, Our Lord stands in the water as St. John administers the baptism. The company of fourteen saints surrounds the scene arranged as if in a human banderole. God the Father is shown at the summit, encased by clouds. Note the two angels playing musical instruments and a small angel in top center, incensing. Archangel Gabriel, the Blessed Virgin Mary shown on the golden morsus of his cope, holds the blue mantle of Jesus. God the Father wears a maniple. All the figures, aside from the Divinity are shown kneeling. Heavenly liturgy envelops the historical event. The ambiance of the representation is solemn but also unquestionably joyous. No other artist was ever able to capture both moods simultaneously with equal success.

El Greco. Baptism of the Lord. Oil on canvas, 1600.
A hundred years after the Master of St. Bartholomew Altar, El Greco paints a work of similar transcendent force but with a radically different stylistic approach. The large, vertical canvas is peopled with strange elongated figures, background and foreground arranged as a cascade of brilliant light and vibrant color. Our Lord, under the baldachin of red mantle held over him by the angels, humbly takes a knee to receive the baptism, God the Father lovingly blesses him from above, while John is shown pouring water in a gesture communicating, Thy Will be Done. Cherubs are swirling and buoyant but John’s face seems serious, almost tearful. There is abandonment here and a premonition of sacrifice. Action on Earth is connected to Heaven with an upward surge of curved color. Even the few horizontal lines seem to have a skyward orientation.

Giotto. Baptism of the Lord. Fresco, 1305.
A pioneer of monumental painting, Giotto realized a suite of frescos for the Scrovegni Chapel between 1300 and 1310. Baptism of the Lord is one of the scenes he chose to depict, and his work is possibly the earliest large-scale painting of the Baptism in the West. Overall, this fresco is still indebted to the Medieval and Byzantine aesthetic with its bright palette and lack of perspective, but anticipation of the Renaissance is also unmistakable. Our Lord is shown as a graceful and beautiful nude, standing in the water up to his waist. Emphasis on the body, painted as if for its own sake, and attempt at figure modelling mark a shift from the flat and purely linear handling by the earlier artists. The shores of Jordan are pictured as bare rock, as much symbolic of ascesis as recalling a realistic geographical setting. Groups of three figures are balanced on each side, divided into angels and men. The angels dressed in white are feminine and youthful in appearance, the men represent different age groups. There is little movement here and perhaps that is another reason why the viewer cannot but linger on the humanity of Our Lord. Burst of light from above shows a figure with an extended right hand – an anthropomorphized voice of God declaring Sonship of Jesus. If examined closely, the image reveals a direct eye contact between Our Lord and St. John the Baptist, a somber mutual understanding. The cruciform halo of Jesus strikes in combination with his voluptuous nudity and is an allusion to the sacrificial significance of the event.

Domenico Ghirlandaio. Baptism of the Lord, fresco, 1486-1490.
Renaissance Florence contributed several Baptism related works and among these the one painted by Verrocchio with the assistance of Leonardo da Vinci, who was his apprentice for several years, is possibly the most famous one. A Florentine Baptism included here is a different one, painted a few years later and influenced by Verrocchio-Da Vinci work. Here is a fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio from 1490 A.D. The composition is unique, because it is arranged on a horizontal plane, dominated by a group of figures, several in contemporary dress, against mountainous, rocky background with a city to the far right. Our Lord stands in the center, hands clasped in prayer as St. John lifts his hand over his head to baptize him. There are no fewer than ten figures in the foreground. Angels on the right side of the river, kneel. On the left bank someone is untying their sandals, preparing to receive the baptism. Another nude with their back towards the viewer, looks on and possibly just came out of the water. The group with God the Father blessing the scene happening below is painted closely above Jesus. It is an image in which the eye always comes back to the figure of Jesus who is a definitive center of visual gravity here. The painted moment is somewhat suspended, as if time stopped for the viewer to take a closer look into what has just happened.

Cima da Conegliano. Baptism of the Lord, oil on canvas, 1492.
Cima de Conegliano painting of the Baptism is still installed in San Giovanni in Bragora Church in Venice. Our Lord stands front and center, his hands in prayerful gesture, his demeanor serious, his line of vision disappearing somewhere past the viewer. The Baptism takes places in a midst of a rocky landscape with two cities in the far background. The usual activity of man and nature carries on as John is about to pour water over Jesus’ head. The Dove hovers directly above the head of Jesus and right above an inner-lit cloud alludes to God the Father. Blue, red, yellow, and green cherubs surround the Divine presence in the sky. Whiteness of the perizoma and of Jesus’flesh echoes white of the clouds, creating a continuity between lower and upper sections of the composition. Solemn angels who accompany the event stand, as is custom, on the right bank of the river holding blue and red mantles. One of these angels turns to the viewer, creating a line of continuity between the inner activity of the scene in the painting and the person present in the church looking on at the image.

Bartolome Murillo. Baptism of the Lord, oil on canvas, 1655.
Possibly the most successful of the intimate presentations of the Baptism of Our Lord was painted by Bartolome Esteban Murillo. The painting was completed in 1655 and belongs to the cycle of works depicting life of St John the Baptist. The canvas was originally intended for the refectory of the Augustinian monastery of San Leandro in Seville, Spain; it has since found home in a Berlin Museum. Murillo’s work is a wonderfully arranged composition, graceful and harmonious. The verticality is softened by a gentle tilt of all visual lines. The perizoma is noticeably more generous than usual. Perhaps this larger linen is meant to recall both the loincloth usually shown on the crucified Lord and a burial linen. Jesus humbles himself bowing towards St. John who baptizes him. Tree in the center and John’s staff allude to the cross – another the reason to suppose that the white linen typifies burial.  Holy Spirit is shown at the top against the golden haze, hovering above Jesus. The halos are rendered very tastefully and softly. Figures and faces in this painting are among the most beautiful in the history of religious art.

Peter Paul Rubens. Baptism of the Lord, oil on canvas, 1605.
Rubens’painting of the Baptism dates from 1604-05. Unlike the intimate rendition of Murillo, this image is one of an event both holy and public. The influence of Michelangelo is conspicuous. Without a doubt, Rubens took full advantage of his figure drawings based on Michelangelo’s work he studied while living in Italy – notice figures echoing some postures in the Sistine chapel and the amazing modelling. Perhaps the current critical mindset would tend to interpret this kind of work as merely derivative, at the time of Rubens such obvious inspiration was a sign of continuity and unity with what was best in the artistic tradition. Regardless of the way art criticism might lean with regards to Michelangelo influence here, the composition is dynamic without being busy and the entire arrangement is impactful and attractive. And these characteristics are most decisively unique to Rubens.

Without exception, works assembled in this small consortium are figurative and narrative. Evaluating them reveals how good religious art is conceived and carried out, and how a range of expression can be both broadened and deepened without compromising the subject matter at hand. All these images are bound by heterogeneity of figural arrangement but also manifest an interesting diversity of style and articulation derived from the doctrinal and spiritual emphases artists gave to their work. Such paintings are visual matter for mediation, much like sacred text is matter for the practice of Lectio Divina. A person who looks at these works can easily recognize St. John the Baptist and Our Lord, but the purpose of seeing good religious art is never to stay at an immediate level of perception and acknowledgment. A well carried religious image in a church interior accompanies body, heart, and mind in preparation for the Liturgy. Together with the arrangement of the interior architecture, religious art helps to transition a person into a solemn and prayerful mindset. Mastery of style, composition, and color reign together with the poesy of image, spiritual and psychological depth of gestures, and overall sound theological charge.

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