The Baptism of Christ

Back in the day when I was a Londoner, & becoming a Christian — to which I referred two posts ago — it was my habit to haunt, in addition to libraries, also museums & galleries. These were the happiest days of my life, the chastest & the poorest in material terms, & London was my Athens as a young man. There was free admission to all these institutions (even where a ticket was required, it was free), & I was living off the fat of the land. I mentioned Bible reading in that penultimate “Ask” post, & my mesmerization by the Gospel of John. There was another mesmerization, at the time.

At the National Gallery in London there is a famous picture, by Piero della Francesca, entitled The Baptism of Christ. It has extraordinary redemptive value, or so it then seemed to me. I would, at that time, go into the National Gallery almost daily, park myself in front of that painting, & stare at it, sometimes for more than an hour. The museum guards became aware of me, & worried about my strange behaviour. Several times I was told to move on.

Piero’s Baptism was the central panel of a triptych for the Camaladolese Abbey at Sansepolcro in Tuscany, his birthplace. It is unfortunate that with time & money (& the occasional act of rapine) these objects are pulled apart & scattered. In this case not only does one long to see the side panels, but also the original frame, & the triptych’s setting in the chapel sanctuary. There was apparently a roundel atop the frame of the central panel, representing God the Father, serving as common point of reference to integrate all three panels; there may have been other relevant “decorations.” But we will take what we have with gratitude, as we do with all Classics: any piece of them we can get our eyes upon.

This painting, tempera on wood, I will not bother to describe, for it is reproduced all over the Internet, often large & sharp. But I have never seen a reproduction, in pixels or on paper, that captures the atmosphere of the thing; its unearthliness, & paradoxically also its solidity.

Piero was a brilliant mathematician, & the internal geometry of the painting is complex, enfolding a symbolism richer still — all set in motion by the gesture of John Baptist. The trunk of the foreground tree demarcates a golden section within the picture, but this is only the beginning of the proportional relations. All seem to play a part, in combination with the colouring, to set the painting into what I can describe only as “a spiritual motion.”

The whole is greater than its parts, & the modern academic practice of drawing rectangles, diagonals, arcs, circles, & squiggles over the composition to demonstrate the relations detracts from this whole. We have up here in the High Doganate a learned work by J.V. Field, Pierro della Francesca: A Mathematician’s Art, which though interesting in itself has added precisely nothing to our appreciation of any of Piero’s paintings. It is as if the better one “understands” them, the less one understands. This could be a reason why, perhaps, Piero’s Quattrocento contemporaries may have appreciated them less than we can; because they “knew too much.” They would have understood topical references to a movement then afoot, to reunite Western & Eastern Christendom. That accounts for figures in Byzantine dress towards the rear of the composition, obscured by the novice undressing on the right, & may point to other allusions.

The angels represented on the left — touching or holding hands, each dressed in a distinct manner — & with their peculiar expressions of wonderment — often held my attention. But every part of the composition leads one back to what we have dead centre: Christ. Somehow the painting has captured what theologians have struggled to convey: his “consubstantiality”; his manliness & his God-liness inseverably combined. Perhaps one reason for my fascination was my need to take this in gradually, for it is lost in any simple formula, necessary as that credal formula may be. It is part of the “impossibility” I was writing about, in that previous post.

The landscape itself is arguably Tuscan, & I’ve read that Sansepolcro itself is to be found, on the hill high on the left. Perhaps so. But every effort has been made, starting from the abstract presentation of the Jordan River, & the way it is taken to end at Christ’s feet; in the angels; & then through the “song” in the receding placement of the trees, to make the landscape itself in a sense “consubstantial.” It combines heavenly & earthly. Christ’s standing posture & His centrality make him dominant, but also serve to put the heavenly behind him. He is the gate: “only through Christ” do we come to the heaven; only through Baptism do we come into the Life that must pass through the eye of the needle.

There is much more to contemplate in this astonishing work of art. Piero was such a painter, that it is almost useless to consider his career — to place any of his paintings in a chronological sequence & think of what came before & after. His development as artist was of a different kind. There is little or no perceptible stylistic evolution, & he arrives & departs from history in one piece. Blanks are likewise drawn in his relations with other masters. This renders conventional art-historical analysis quite pointless. I have often suspected that “art history” serves Progress more than it can ever serve Art; that it is like a museum guard who tells you to keep moving.