Walking through the rooms of the Sainsbury’s wing of the National Gallery here in London I have always been attracted by some works in particular. Probably because many are Italian and perhaps because different tell stories that I have known since childhood and are part of our culture. Among these is a 15th century altarpiece in almost perfect colors. I am Clelia and today we discover the Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca from 1450.
This work of today is full of contradictions that make it so interesting for this very reason. There is a solemn air, that of an important moment, but at the same time light thanks to the light and delicate colors. But, you immediately notice the almost perfect geometry of the composition, but at the same time you are positively displaced by some less rigid details. And, it’s about the perfect balance between science and poetry.
And this is precisely one of the characteristics of the artist who created it. Piero della Francesca is in fact a deeply reflective artist who works slowly and in a rational and scientific way. His love for order, let’s call it that, is accompanied by an incredible skill and attention also to color and light. And precisely for this reason his works do not seem just studies of space and perspective, but instead transmit sincere emotions. The beauty of nature is in fact as important to him as the geometry of the forms.
The theme of the work
The theme of the work is a very famous episode in Christian history: The Baptism of Christ. It is a very widespread theme in Christian art and many aspects of Piero della Francesca’s painting can be compared to other works by Italian artists of this period or slightly earlier or later. None of them, however, in my opinion, plays with Piero in creating a scene so monumental, but delicate at the same time. And none of them gave the event this timeless yet recognizable setting.
In the biblical accounts, in fact, Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River. In this case, however, Piero della Francesca places the scene on the hills he saw around the city where he was born. And in fact the town that can be glimpsed between Jesus and the tree bears a strong resemblance to Sansepolcro.
Christ, protagonist of the work
In Renaissance paintings, then Christ is usually depicted with an otherworldly aspect, to emphasize his divine nature. Piero della Francesca instead gives it a common aspect. The kind of human figure that all of us could meet and that he himself could have seen working in the countryside around Sansepolcro. He is not particularly handsome: he has very large ears, fairly thick lips, long and somewhat scruffy hair. But it is not because of its physical appearance that we can recognize its sanctity, that matters little. In fact, the look, with this thoughtful and profound expression, makes us immediately understand the depth of his thought.
And he is the protagonist of the work from all points of view, including the composition. It is in fact located in the exact center and divides it in two. An imaginary line starts from the dove, then passes from the water that is falling on its forehead, up to the praying hands. But the ingenious move to prevent our eye from being bothered by this division is the fact that Piero gives a slight sensation of movement to the body of Christ, thanks to the twist, therefore to this modification of the central axis at the height of the bust. And so Jesus stands naturally and convincingly.
Details of The BAPTISM of Christ [ANALYSIS]
Above him is a dove. Nothing particularly original because the Bible tells that when Jesus is baptized the Holy Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove. And this is one of the characteristics of many representations of Baptism and perhaps also one of the simplest ways to recognize the episode. Although the dove has always been used as a symbol of peace, innocence and the Holy Spirit also in other episodes such as that of the Annunciation. And what is most striking in this case is Piero della Francesca’s skill in representing her from the front, thus helping the idea of perspective. And her descent from heaven is also suggested by the shape of the new ones around her.
San Giovanni Battista
To the right of Jesus we find another character, San Giovanni Battista who is the co-protagonist of this work. John is a relative of Jesus, as I was telling you cousin. But above all he is considered the forerunner or herald of Christ. And baptism is precisely that moment that marks the beginning of Jesus’ public life, so it is natural that he is accompanied by a figure like that of John. In art, the Baptist is often depicted as a kind of “wild man”. Surely he is an ascetic, a man who lives a very austere life so he hardly lives in the desert and who wears animal skins. In this case, however, Piero della Francesca portrays him as a fairly well-groomed man but above all calm and aware of what is happening and the importance of this moment.
The other characters
But let’s also observe the other characters who tell us about the episode. In the scene it seems that Jesus has only his feet wet in a stream and has not completely immersed himself in the Jordan which is instead a consistent river rich in water. According to biblical accounts, the event took place during a general baptism of the people and actually the characters behind John the Baptist here also make us think. Behind him on the right there is a man who is undressing as if he were ready to receive Baptism too shortly and behind him a crowd of people who are almost as if they were leaving when the event is over.
Finally, paintings of the Baptism of Christ often include two or three angels standing sideways. Sometimes they wear the garments of Christ. And sometimes they are inserted in a more ornamental way or to balance the composition. In this work the angels are in my opinion among the most realistic and personal ever seen. In fact, like the figure of Jesus, they too seem to be based on the observation of real people rather than the conventional idea of the angel as a heavenly being. They seem to chat and comment among themselves what is happening and what involves them and almost distracts them. Fantastic is the fact that one leans on the other’s shoulder with a spontaneous, casual gesture and that we could all do when we are chatting with a group of friends. However, despite this way of presenting themselves, they do not diminish the solemn atmosphere of the work at all, on the contrary they balance it.
The composition of Il BAPTISIMO di Cristo ANALYSIS
And the balance of the composition is one of the main features of this work. Piero as I told you is also a mathematician as well as an artist and his paintings are often real geometric studies. The painting in this case has a round top, while the base consists of a square. Which transforms it all into a square surmounted by a circle. More obviously a triangle whose vertex is formed by the hands of Jesus. In this way, even the most dynamic part of the composition, the one in which John moves forward and Jesus moves his bust, is still within a geometric order.
The technique of The BAPTISM of Christ ANALYSIS
From the point of view of the technique, however, the work is made with the most common technique up to then tempera, in this case on wood. But these are also the years in which the use of oil painting begins to be introduced. The difference in general is related to the substance with which the color pigments are mixed. In the case of tempera it is the egg, in the case of oil it is oil. Gouache can produce beautiful and lasting results, but it is difficult to master and requires a lot of patience. Colors cannot be mixed easily, while with oils it is easier to mix them. Sometimes, paintings in this transition period are started with tempera and finished with oils. But that is not the case with this work.
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The story of The BAPTISM of Christ
For many works by Italian artists, such as the Mona Lisa, our hearts light up when we enter into the debate on how and why they are abroad. So I’ll tell you why this altarpiece came from Borgo Sansepolcro in 1450 to London.
Nothing is recorded on the commission of this painting, but there is historical and archival evidence indicating that it may have been painted as an altarpiece for a chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist (one of the two main figures in the painting) for an abbey of Sansepolcro in Tuscany.
When the abbey was closed in 1808, the painting was transferred to the cathedral of Sansepolcro, which sold it in 1859. This is because Piero della Francesca in the mid-nineteenth century is still considered a minor figure in Italian Renaissance art. Contrary to what is happening now, for which he is not only recognized as a great artist, but as one of the most important in our art history.
However, it remained for only two years in the hands of the buyer who in 1861 sold it to the National Gallery in London. This is because the director of the time (Sir Charles Lock Eastlake) is the one we have to thank for the rediscovery of Piero della Francesca’s works and theoretical texts. Despite everything, there are no clues to help with the exact dating of the painting. And the date 1450 is due to the fact that it is thought to have been made at the beginning of Piero’s career, due to the bright colors.
And if you liked this post in which we discovered something more about the work of one of the great Italian artists of the fifteenth century, I also suggest you take a look at my video on Botticelli’s Venus or the post on Arnolfini Spouses always kept at the National Gallery.
Thanks and see you next time!