Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Baptism of the Lord -- The Basics

The Olivetan Master, Baptism of Christ
Cutting from a Choir Book
Italian (Milan), c. 1425-1440
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 558.2

“Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan
to be baptized by him.
John tried to prevent him, saying,
“I need to be baptized by you,
and yet you are coming to me?”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us
to fulfill all righteousness.”
Then he allowed him.
After Jesus was baptized,
he came up from the water and behold,
the heavens were opened for him,
and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove
and coming upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens, saying,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:13-17

Gospel for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Year A – Sunday, January 12, 2020

The feast of the Baptism of the Lord Jesus is celebrated by the church on the Sunday following the feast of the Epiphany.  In recent times it is designated as the end of the season of Advent and Christmas.  In some years, such as 2023, the feast has been assigned to the Monday immediately after the feast of Epiphany.  Since the Sunday of the Baptism is also the first Sunday in Ordinary Time, from that day the Sundays are designated as Sundays in Ordinary Time until the first Sunday of Lent (which for 2023 falls on February 26).  

The three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all include the story of the baptism of the Jesus, including the statement by the voice from heaven.  Most of them are a bit more summary than the account given by Matthew which is the Gospel reading for the feast in 2023.  Further, all three PLUS the Gospel of John include the most important visual detail of the scene, the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove.  In the Synoptic Gospels the dove is part of the action of the baptism, while for John it is a detail referred to later by John the Baptist as part of his witness to the identity of Jesus.  In all instances the Church has considered the event of the baptism as the official beginning of the mission of Jesus on earth and the occurrence of the voice of the Father and the appearance of the dove as an indication of his participation in the life of the Trinitarian Godhead.  It is an indication that the human Jesus who acts in the Gospels is not an ordinary human being, but is also acting as a manifestation of the divine Unity of the Three-in-One. 

Andrea del Verrochio and Leonardo da Vinci, Baptism of Christ
Italian, c. 1472-1475
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

Given its theological importance, images of the baptism of Jesus have been a staple of Christian iconography since the earliest times.  Indeed, many of the Christian pictures best known around the world as representative of the work of great artists are images of the baptism of Jesus.  The earliest identifiable work by Leonardo da Vinci is an angel from a picture of the Baptism by his master, Verrocchio.  The image by Piero della Francesca is often seen as the pinnacle of his work.  As we shall see, the earlier image by Giotto is considered to be a ground breaking work for the whole history of Western art. 

Piero della Francesca, Baptism of Christ
Italian, After 1437
London, National Gallery

Early Representations

When conducting the image research for this article I was struck by how much earlier the image appeared than I expected.  Indeed, the earliest images I found are tentatively dated to the decades before the last formal Roman persecution of Christians under Diocletian.  They are often dated to the last quarter of the third century.  This is astonishingly early.  At this point the church was still very much an underground movement, operating as much as possible out of the direct view of the Roman authorities.  Yet, there it is, the image of the Baptism among several others on a carved sarcophagus frontal in the Vatican Museums.  One can clearly make out the distinctive shape of John the Baptist, with upraised arm, pouring water over the figure of Jesus.  

Fragment of a Sarcophagus with the Baptism of Christ
Roman, c. 275-300
Vatican, Museo Pio-Cristiano

Detail of the image of the Baptism of Christ from the above.

One thing which is surprising is that the images of Jesus at this point all show him as a smaller beardless figure, clearly differentiated from the Baptist, who is shown as bearded, and wearing rough garments of animal skin.  Presumably, this indicates that Jesus is younger, just beginning his ministry.  All of the images (with the exception of the earliest which is damaged in the important spot) include the image of the dove descending upon his head. 

Frontal from a Sarcophagus, Baptism of Christ
Roman, c. 300-330
Vatican, Museo Pio-Cristiano
To the left is the scene of the Nativity, to the right is Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:22-43)

So, from the very beginnings of Christian iconography the important communication within the image is already well defined. 

Ivory Plaque. Baptism of Christ
Late Antique, First third of 5th Century
Berlin, Bode Museum

What had been true for the period of persecution only increased once Christianity was a recognized and officially tolerated religion in the Empire, then the official religion of the Empire.  Late antique examples abound, not just in Rome or in Italy, but in far flung parts of the Empire as well:  in what is today France and Germany.

Baptism of Christ
From the Sarcophagus of the Anastasis
Gallo-Roman, 375
Arles, Musée de l'Arles antique

Ivory plaque, Baptism of Christ
Probably Germano-Roman, 5th Century
London, British Museum
At the right is the scene of the 12 year old Jesus in the Temple debating with the Doctors of the Law.  The winged figure at the left end of the panel may be an angel, although angels are typically not bearded.  Alternately, it could be a personification of the Holy Spirit, not as a dove, but as a person.

The Late Antique/Early Byzantine Period

As the Roman Empire in Western Europe faltered and disappeared under the waves of migration from the east, the eastern portion of the Empire morphed into the Byzantine Empire.  As happened with many other images, depictions of this Biblical subject developed from the relatively naturalistic forms of the Late Antique into the heavily stylized forms of Byzantine art, which has lasted for the past 1,500 years.  Indeed, one can almost say that the Byzantine image was more in the nature of an abstract sign, such as this contemporary one, than a picture of a real event.

In the Early Christian and Late Antique samples Jesus and John stand in a space in which John and Jesus are shown either in two sized or on two levels, indicating that Jesus is standing in the stream of the River Jordan, while John stands on the river bank.  Until the beginning of the fifth century there is no specific depiction of water, however.  Then, we begin to see the use of horizontal lines moving across the legs of Jesus, as an indication that he is standing in water. 

Baptism of Christ
Late Antique, c. 470-480
Ravenna, Baptistry of the Orthodox (Neonian Baptistry)
This mosaic was heavily (and clumsily) "restored" in the 19th Century, note the brighter yellow color of the areas containing the dove of the Holy Spirit and the heads and upper torsos of Jesus and Saint John.  It is likely that the position of John's arm and the heads of both figures were modified at that time to correspond with the more developed iconography which was familiar to 19th century audiences.  Originally these areas probably more closely corresponded to the other images of the Baptism which we have seen and which are shown immediately below.  That is 1) a beardless Christ, 2) Saint John's hand resting closely on Jesus head.

Baptism of Christ
Late Antique, c. 500-526
Ravenna, Baptistry of the Arians

Development in Byzantine Art and Translation into the Art of the Western Kingdoms

As the stylization of Byzantine art continued something weird began to happen.  In what I suspect was an attempt to depict the stream of the River Jordan in perspective, but without the knowledge of how to accomplish this effect, the water began to appear almost as a kind of blue skirt, forming a sort of pyramid from Christ’s waist to his feet or as a transparent cloak from his neck to his feet.  This convention worked its way into the newly formed kingdoms of western Europe and began to appear there, supplanting the older, more naturalistic Late Antique depictions.  

Baptism of Christ
Late Antique/Early Byzantine (Syria or Egypt), 6th Century
London, British Museum

Baptism of Christ
From the Rabbula Gospels, Detail of a Canon Table with Miniature scenes
Syrian, Completed 586
Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana
MS Cod. Plut. I, fol. 56r

Baptism of Christ
Detail from a Psalter
Byzantine (Constantinople), Second Half of 9th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Grec 20, 26v

Situla (Holy Water Bucket)
Carolingian, c. 860-880
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Anglo-Saxon Ivory, Baptism of Christ
English (Winchester), c. 10th-11th Century
London, British Museum

Engraved Rock Crystal. Baptism of Christ
Carolingian, c. 900
Rouen, Musée departemental des Antiquités de la Seine-Maritime

Baptism of Christ
From the Orations by Gregory Nazianzenus
Byzantine (Constantinople), 11th - 12th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Coislin 239, fol. 120

The Middle Ages

With very few exceptions this was the dominant image of the baptism of Jesus in both the Byzantine lands and in the new kingdoms of Western Europe from the 10th to the beginning of the 14th centuries.  Whereas the earliest images had stripped the number of figures down to the essential two, with the occasional river god thrown in as part of the larger mosaic images, angels now made their appearance.  Every image of the baptism now included one or more angels, standing ready on the riverbank opposite John with towels or with Christ’s tunic.

The Baptism and Temptations of Christ
From the Gospel Book of Otto III
German (Reichenau), c. 1000
Munich, Bayeriesche Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4453, fol. 30

Baptism of Christ
From the Saint Peter Gospels
Austrian (Salzburg), c. 1025-1050
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 781, fol. 40v

Baptism of Christ
From a Bible
German (Pruem), c. 1100-1125
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de Paris
MS Latin 17325, fol. 22

Reinier de Huy, Baptismal Font
Mosan (Liege), c. 1107-1108
Liege, Church of Saint-Barthelemy

Baptism of Christ
From the Saint Alban's Psalter (aka Psalter of Christina of Markyate)
English (Abbey of Saint Alban's), First Half of 12th Century)
Hildesheim, Dombibliothek
MS St. God. 1, fol. 32

Baptism of Christ
Mosan, c. 1150-1175
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nicholas of Verdun, Baptism of Christ
From the Klosterneuburg Altar
Mosan, c. 1181
Klosterneuburg (Austria), Abbey Church

Baptism of Christ
From a Gospel Book
German (Saxony), c. 1215-1235
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 299, fol. 5v

Baptismal Font with the Baptism of Christ
German (Hildesheim), c. 1226
Hildesheim, Hohe Domkirche

Applique plaque of the Baptism of Christ
French (Limoges), Mid-12th Century
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

Possibly Jacopino da Reggio, Baptism of Christ
From a Psalter
Italian (Bologna), c. 1200
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Smith-Lesouef 21, fol. 14

Baptism of Christ
From Livre d'images de Madame Marie
Flemish (Hainaut), c. 1285-1290
Paris, Biblitoheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, fol. 27v

This image remained the standard image for the mosaics, icons and manuscript illuminations of the Orthodox church right up to the present day.  

Baptism of Christ
From a Bible
Byzantine, c. 1100-1125
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Grec 75, fol. 95r

Mosaic of the Baptism of Christ
Byzantine (Sicily), c. 1150
Palermo, Cappella Palatina

Baptism of Christ
From the Four Gospels
Byzantine (Cyprus or Palestine), c. 1275-1350
London, British Library
MS Harley 1810, fol. 95r

Mosaic of Baptism of Christ
Byzantine, c. 1350
Venice, Basilica of San Marco

Icon of the Baptism of Christ
Russian (Possibly Novgorod), 15th-16th Century
Vatican, Pinacoteca Vaticana

Baptism of Christ
Greek, 21st Century
© Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (

In Western Europe, however, things began to change in the early 14th century.

A New Direction in Italy

Probably the most important change can be seen in the Baptism of Christ by Giotto di Bondone as part of the life of Christ in the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel in Padua, painted between about 1304 and 1306.  As is often observed, Giotto was able to infuse the figures in his paintings with the weight and feel of living persons, a highly significant step away from the stylization of the Byzantine.  He also is the first person since the Late Antique to depict the River Jordan as something other than a skirt or cloak.  While still not able to reproduce a true perspective, he doesn’t try.  He simply shows the effect of someone standing in a pool of water, if the water were seen head on.  What perspective space exists is limited to a small shelf-like space in the rocks on either side of the river.  There is just enough for the angels and Saint John and the two witnesses to stand on without giving the effect either of overcrowding, of being pasted on or of floating. 

Giotto, Baptism of Christ
Italian, c. 1304-1306
Padua, Scrovegni-Arena Chapel

Giotto’s Baptism had an immediate impact on Italian artists.  From this point on it is difficult to find any painting or work of sculpture of the Baptism by an Italian artist that shows anything other than the effect of a real body standing in real water, although often continuing to adhere to the other aspects of Byzantine/Greek conventions.

Workshop of Pacino di Bonaguida, Baptism of Christ
From Scenes from the life of Christ and life of Blessed Gerard of Villamagna
Italian (Florence), c. 1315-1325
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 643, fol. 5v

Andrea Pisano, Baptism of Christ
From the south doors of the Baptistry
Italian, 1330
Florence, Baptistry

Giovanni Baronzio, Baptism of Christ
Italian, c. 1335
Washington, National Gallery of Art
While the timeless, golden background still reflects the more abstract Byzantine style, the slight increase in bulk of the figures and, above all, the treatment of the water derive from Giotto.  Christ no longer "wears" the Jordan River as a skirt or a cloak, but can be seen to be standing in a body of water.

Baptism of Christ
From Vies de la vierge et du Christ
Italian (Naples), c. 1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 9561, fol. 145v

By 1350 Giotto's innovation had spread nearly the length of the Italian peninsula, to the painter who illuminated this text for the French market in Naples.

Giovanni di Benedetto and Workshop, Baptism of Christ
From a Missal
Italian (Milan), c. 1385-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 757, fol. 439v

The Spread to the North

It took a little longer for this new pattern to circulate to the artists of northern Europe.  The ideas presumably came to them through copies of the works of Giotto and his followers made by visitors to Italy and by the arrival of Italian illuminated manuscripts which were often exchanged as gifts between rulers or were in the possession of Italian merchants working in the north.  The wool and woolen cloth of the north was a frequently sought commodity for the Italian representatives of the weaving industry and merchants traveled frequently between Tuscany and Flanders (for example).  Bankers followed to facilitate the transactions, so there was a great deal of interchange between north and south through which each region could learn about the art of the other.  The technique of using oil to work the pigments for a painting instead of egg yolk was developed in northern Europe, for example, and traveled south to Italy through these merchant ties.  Italian compositions and eventually the technique of mathematical perspective traveled north along the same route.  

Master of the Roman de Fauvel, Baptism of Christ
From Vies des saints
French (Paris), c. 1300-1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 183, fol. 181r

Baptism of Christ
From the Queen Mary Psalter
Engilish (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 190v

Jean Bondol and Others. Baptism of Christ
From Grande Bible Historiale Completée by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1371-1372
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS MMW 10 B 23, fol. 468r

Nonetheless, by the last quarter of the 14th century, the image of Christ standing in water, instead of wearing it, was firmly established north of the Alps.

Master of the Trinity, Baptism of Christ
From Petites heures de Jean de Berry
French (Bourges), c. 1385-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 18014, fol. 209r

Baptism of Christ, Stained Glass Window
Austrian, c. 1390
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection

Master of the Baptism or Master of the Holy Spirit, Baptism of Christ
From Tres belles heures de notre-dame de Jean de Berry
French, c. 1400
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 3093, fol. 162
One interesting aspect of this illumination is that the small picture at the bottom is the scene of a Baptism contemporary with the book.  In it we see the procession to church of the family and friends of a newborn.  You may need to zoom on this, but it is clearly readable.  The baby can be seen wrapped in white in the arms of a man or woman in a blue cloak as the clergy welcome them. One of the clergy can be seen to be reading from a book. The scene greatly resembles the baptism of infants today, only the clothing has changed.

The Introduction of Perspective

By the middle of the 15th century, with just a few exceptions, the concept of the skirt or cloak of water had disappeared on both sides of the Alps.  In addition, the introduction of mathematical perspective techniques, enabling a more accurate depiction of space, opened up the picture plane to depths unimaginable 150 years earlier.  Now the river could trail off into the distance or form a pond without giving the impression of being something which the figure of Jesus stands within.  Now he can be submerged up to his knees or to his waist, or in which he can knee or simply stand on the riverbank which John pours water over his head.

Lorenzo Ghiberti, The Baptism of Christ
Panel from the Baptismal Font of the Life of Saint John the Baptist
Italian, c. 1427
Siena, Baptistry

Master of Marguerite d'Orleans, Baptism of Christ
From Hours of Marguerite d'Orleans
French (Rennes), c. 1430
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1156 B, fol. 161v

Piero della Francesca, Baptism of Christ
Italian, After 1437
London, National Gallery

Rogier van der Weyden, Baptism of Christ
Central Panel of the Saint John Altarpiece
Flemish, c. 1445-1455
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin

With the introduction of scientific perspective, the scene could also open out.  Towns and cities and forests and mountains appeared in the distance.  The angel or angels are occasionally joined by other figures.  

Baptism of Christ
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1415-1425
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 1000, fol. 150r

Fastolf Master, The Baptism of Christ
From a Book of Hours
French (Rouen), c. 1415-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 27, fol. 46r

Lorenzo Salimbeni, The Baptism of Christ
Italian, c. 1416
Urbino, Oratory of San Giovanni Battista

Masolino da Panicale, Baptism of Christ
Italian, 1435
Castiglione Olona, Baptistry

Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, Baptism of Christ
Italian, c. 1493-1494
Venice, Church of San Giovanni in Bragora

During the last half of the 15th century some depictions began to include various groups of additional figures, sometimes seen in the distance.  In some cases they are witnesses.  Or they may be depictions of St. John the Baptist preaching to groups prior to the baptism of Jesus or of other persons waiting to be baptized themselves.  

Baptism of Christ
From Fleurs des histoires by Jean Mansel
French, c. 1450-1475
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 56, fol. 19r

Giovanni di Paolo, Baptism of Christ
Predella Panel from the Saint John the Baptist Altarpiece
Italian, 1454
London, National Gallery

Pietro Perugino, Baptism of Christ and Preaching of John the Baptist
Italian, c. 1482
Vatican, Sistine Chapel

Jean Colombe, Baptism of Christ
From the Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry
French, c. 1485-1486
Chantilly, Musée Condé
MS 65, fol. 109v

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Baptism of Christ
Italian, c. 1486-1490
Florence, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel

Gerard David, Baptism of Christ
Central Panel of the Triptych of Jan Des Trompes
Flemish, 1505
Bruges, Groeninge Museum

Whatever the specific details are the scene as a whole has been translated from a sort of narrative sign referencing the brief Gospel accounts to what a visual story setting the Gospel event into what is recognizably a world that is real to the viewer. 

Pietro Perugino, Baptism of Christ
Italian, c. 1500-1505
Chicago, Art Institute

Thus, by the first decades of the 16th century, in both north and south, the story of the Baptism of Christ had reached something like a plateau where the narrative was clear and well understood.  However, under the pressures unleashed by the Reformation, with controversy raging over the number of the sacraments and the meaning and timing of individual baptisms, some of this was soon to change.  That story, however, will have to wait for another post.

© M. Duffy, 2020

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.