The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, National Gallery, London
(I’ve posted this late, after the Christmas season has ended but hopefully, it is still of some interest and value in seeking to continue the Christmas mystery into the year).
This painting by Piero della Francesca hangs in the National Gallery, London. It is the central panel of an altarpiece which most art historians date from midway through the artist’s oeuvre to about 1450-1, about the same time as the St Jerome in Berlin, which has a similar natural landscape suffused with light and its effects, and after the left hand panel and before the right panel of the Polyptych of the Misericordia 1445-60. The other parts of the Baptism altarpiece triptych were completed later by Matteo di Giovanni. It depicts the Gospel account of Christ’s baptism when the Holy Spirit is poured out on Christ. In the Eastern churches the Epiphany, the Baptism and the miracle at Cana are seen as all aspects of the Epiphany of Christ. It may be that Piero’s treament of this scene offers an interpretation of this.
Missing from the scene connected to this central panel is an additional panel above by Piero in the form of a disc which showed God the Father, probably similar to the foreshortened figure in Matteo di Giovanni’s later altarpiece from Asciano. As it is, we see the figure of Christ centrally placed at the moment of baptism and the Spirit’s descent. The water of the Jordan is shown as a river in the Umbrian landscape around Piero’s native town of Borgo Sansepulcro (seen in the distance) where the painting was executed. It winds its way towards the front plane of the picture and yet as the waters flow towards the figure of Christ they stop short as in the line from the Easter psalm 114 ‘the Jordan turned back on its course’. Here the river bed is dry and exposed. Through the effect of perspective the viewer is drawn into this same space with Christ of the action of the Spirit and New Creation. Furthermore since it is the central panel of an altarpiece, in its original setting in the chapel of the Priory of S. Giovanni Battista, the scene in the picture takes place behind the central action of the Eucharist thus the action of the Spirit in both sacraments is visually linked.
It may be that Piero was influenced for the setting by Donatello’s font in Arezzo where the Baptism is set in a wood. He may have also been influenced by the mosaic figure of Christ in the Neonian Baptistery in Ravenna, which he had seen by 1451 and by Domenico Veneziano’s tondo of the Adoration of the Magi in Berlin, with its unified landscape. However, at the same time Piero draws together various features into a unity and coherent vision.
The other figures around Jesus and St John are significant. Behind, in the middle distance, is a naked about-to-be neophyte, one who follows Christ into the water. He does not see the phenomena of the epiphany yet in faith follows Christ into the water. Formally, Piero links this figure to Christ. He shares the same bare flesh never exposed to the sun as Christ, whose face is tanned. The neophyte is also in contrast to the heavily dressed figures behind who see and point to the epiphany in the sky but who walk away. As the art historian Carlo Bertelli points out, it is as if they see but do not believe, moving away from the action and skirting the river. It could be these figures are supposed to be Greek theologians, who had been in Italy at the Council for the union of the East and Western churches. However, in the painting they seem to stand in for not-seeing, for the Pharisees of the Gospel, while the naked man stands for faithful seeing.
Piero may draw this out in the treatment of the angels. They were a long standing feature of representations of the Baptism of Christ, usually two of them holding robes to wrap Christ in as he begins his ministry and mission, but here they stand discretely in classical poses in a distinct, almost heavenly space (the two trees seem to echo those in the account of Genesis 3) and occupy a considerable part of the painting. The angel on the right has the robe draped over the shoulder ready for Christ, but otherwise they look on from the side in quite a new way.( Piero may have been influenced for their classical pose by original Roman antique sculpture or by Nanni di Banco’s Quattro Coronati on Orsanmichele, Florence). The art historian Carlo Bertelli sees them as singing angels with hands linked and keeping time and that by presenting them in this way, the question about music, about whether it is perceived by the senses or by reason, which preoccupied humanists of the time, echoes the drama of faithful seeing and not seeing in the main part of the picture.