“The Baptism of Christ”, Piero della Francesca, 1450s, National Gallery, London. Stand in a still pool of water on a warm summer’s day and let the cool waters just reach your ankles. Place your pool of water in the midst of the kind of landscape that can be found around this artist’s native Borgo Sansepulcro. Look at the distant hills with their sparse growth and arid look. Feel the heat of the warm Italian sun on your head and shoulders. Notice the town itself in the far distance. Now look look down at your feet. Through the water you can see the gravel beneath your feet, glistening in the refracted sunlight. Just a bit further away you can’t see the bottom of the pool because at that distance what you see is the blue sky and the hills reflected by the water’s surface. This is where Piero della Francesca takes his viewer. Nowadays it is harder to see the line where the water meets Christ’s feet than it would have been when this work was first completed as an altarpiece for the Camaldolese monastery in Sansepulcro. Go online on the Gallery’s website and zoom in on Christ’s feet. You can just see the water’s edge. There was a legend that when Christ was baptised, the waters of the Jordan stopping flowing. It is this wonderful moment of stillness which Piero captures. The only movement in the picture is the water being poured unto Christ’s head by John the Baptist. You would hear it in the stillness of the summer’s day, so far away from the noise of the town. Three angels are in attendance as Christ is baptised. One of them bears the garment with which Christ will be clothed. You will see the Risen Christ wear this same pink cloak in the artist’s famous Resurrection which remains in the town to this day. It was painted in about 1470 which Piero was in his 50’s. But the baptism is much earlier. He was probably in his early 30’s, so that both the artist and Christ are beginning their life’s work. The tree behind Christ is a walnut tree. Notice that all of its leaves descend. The leaves of the tree further back are growing in the normal way as do those on the hillside beyond the river. The dense foliage of the walnut obscures the source of a subtle golden light which falls on the top branches, and seems to highlight the edges of the more shaded branches in the tree behind. If you do go online, check out what a walnut tree actually looks like. Piero has made its bark as pale as Christ’s skin. In fact, both skin and bark seem luminous. It was Donatello who first introduced trees into the iconography of the baptism. It was on a sculpted relief showing Christ’s baptism on a baptism font in Arezzo. In that panel the trees give depth. Piero’s trees give spiritual depth. Beside the river there is a field, which you can plainly see between Christ and the walnut tree. It is a field of tree stumps. Thus the symbolism of the cross is there in the tree, in Christ, whose garments will be stripped from him on Calvary, but who has stripped off his own garments for baptism. It is there too in the field of tree stumps. The Holy Spirit descends like a dove, foreshortened, so that you might think you are seeing a cloud. One of the overdressed men behind notices something because we can see him point. But what does he make of what he sees? Another man is stripping off his clothes. Clearly, with his shirt covering his head, he cannot see what we see, the miraculous moment when the river waters run still, and the Spirit descends, and the Father speaks. But, perhaps, he can hear heaven speak and is actually as motionless as the water. He might be undressing for baptism. But his skin is as luminous as the body of Christ and the bark of the tree, so I think that he has been baptised already. His pale skin, so similar to that of Christ, shines with the Trinity’s new life which we have come to share in baptism. In the words of St Paul, he is putting on Christ (Gal 3:27). We too are asked to go on putting on Christ, for we remain standing in the stilled waters of the font. DM
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