Piero’s Baptism of Christ

December 16th 2023

Piero della Francesca
The Baptism of Christ
after 1437
Egg on poplar, 167 x 116 cm
Bought, 1861

“The Baptism of Christ”, Piero della Francesca, 1442-5, National Gallery, London.  

One way to see this painting is as a meditation on the line from John’s Prologue which we read today: “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world” (John 1:9). At the centre of the image there is Christ and there is a stillness about him and the waters in which he stands ankle-deep.  Movement is kept in the background. In the foreground the only movement is the water that trickles down upon the head of Christ. You can almost hear it trickle down in the silence which follows the voice from heaven: “Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11), albeit, this is not mentioned in the Gospel of John. The water in the river “mirrors a still sky”, but visually, it encloses the sky; in it the heavenly becomes earthbound.  But there is still more to see, for these still waters do not just reflect the bright sky, they reveal a different hidden light from heaven.  Although Christ stands ankle-deep in the water, his feet are shown without any distortion. This can only happen if the water in which he stands is lit from a source directly above him.  And this explains why the pale body of Christ is suffused with light.  Later, John would write in his Epistle: “God is light, in him there is no darkness” (1 John 1:5).  Now, this light comes into the world.   Now, this light comes into the world.  Another John, the mystic, St John of the Cross, would imagine the Son coming into the world, as a bridegroom embracing a bride (Romance III, Of the Creation, tr. Roy Campbell):

I wish to give you, My dear Son,

To cherish you, a lovely bride,

And one who for Your worth will merit

To live forever by Our side. 

And she will eat bread at Our table,


The selfsame bread on which I’ve fed:

That she may know the worth and value

Of the Son whom I have bred,

And there enjoy with Me forever

The grace and glory that You shed. 


“Thanks to You, Almighty Father,”

The Son made answer to the Sire,

“To the wife that you shall give Me,

I shall give My lustrous fire,


“That by its brightness she may witness

How infinite My Father’s worth

And how Your being from My being

In every way derived its birth. 


“I’ll Hold her on My arm reclining

And with Your love will burn her so

That with and endless joy and wonder

Your loving kindness she may know.” 

Piero’s Baptism of Christ

Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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