Baptism of Christ (Artful Devotion)

Baptism of Christ (Hitda Codex)
Baptism of Christ, from the evangeliary of the abbess Hitda von Meschede, first half of eleventh century. Hessische Landesbibliothek, Darmstadt, Germany.

As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” . . .

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

—Luke 3:15–17, 21–22

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MUSIC: “Jeux d’eau” (“Play of Water” or “Fountains”) by Maurice Ravel, 1901 | Performed by Martha Argerich, 1977

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The Hitda Codex is an eleventh-century manuscript containing an evangeliary, a selection of passages from the Gospels, commissioned by Hitda, abbess of Meschede, in about 1020. Its illuminations are highlights of the Cologne school in the later phases of the Ottonian Renaissance. View more at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Hitda-Codex.

In the Baptism of Christ painting, Jesus stands waist-deep in Jordan’s rushing waters, which spill forth from an overturned jar in the bottom right held by a personification of the Jordan River. Jesus’s hands are open to receive the Holy Spirit (Spiritus Sanctus), who jets forth from the starry heavens in the form of a dove. God the Father is, by intention, not visualized, but his presence is suggested by the half-circle at the top, which represents the divine realm where he resides.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, cycle C, click here.

Contemporary icons of the Baptism of Christ

Today, January 6, is the feast of Epiphany (“manifestation,” “revelation,” “shining forth”)—also referred to as Theophany (“revelation of God”), or the Feast of Lights. While the Western church commemorates the visit of the Magi on this day, focusing on God’s revelation to the world through the birth of Christ, the Eastern church commemorates Jesus’s baptism, focusing on the Father and Spirit’s affirmation of the Son’s divinity at the beginning of his public ministry. Matthew 3:13–17 gives us the account:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Below is a selection of contemporary Theophany icons from Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Greece, and Romania. All but one of them bear a semicircle at the top, which signifies the “opening of the heavens” and the voice of God reaching down; in Ioan and Camelia Popa’s, God’s hand is even visible. (Representation of the Father is forbidden by tradition, though a hand is generally acceptable because the Bible itself uses anthropomorphic expressions like “God’s hand” and “God’s mighty arm.”) A dove descends from this aperture, a literalization of the Gospel writers’ simile.

On the shores of the Jordan stand one or more angels at the service of their Lord. Their hands are covered by their own cloaks as a sign of reverence—or in some representations, they hold garments to drape over Christ when he emerges from the water. (Early icons of Jesus’s baptism show him completely naked, emphasizing his self-emptying; now, however, it’s more common to see him in a loincloth.)

In Lyuba Yatskiv’s and the Popas’ icons—the most traditional of this bunch—there is an allegorical figure in the river by Christ’s feet, pouring out water from a jug. This man is a personification of the Jordan River, which miraculously dried up, temporarily, to allow the ancient Israelites to cross over into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:15–17). Some icons, though none pictured here, include a second allegorical figure, (Red) Sea, who is turning away, parting (see Psalm 114:3).

In George Kordis’s icon, instead of Jordan at Christ’s feet, there’s a serpent being crushed, a reference to Psalm 74:13: “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.” Visually, this recalls the Eastern church’s Resurrection icon, which depicts Christ breaking down the doors of hell, flattening Satan.

Back to Yatskiv and Popa. In these two there is an axe lying next to a tree, alluding to the sermon by John the Baptist that immediately preceded this episode, in which he proclaimed, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).

Epiphany calls us to worshipfully behold the shining forth of Jesus as messiah and as the second person of the Trinity. To orient yourself to the Orthodox celebration of today’s feast, here are two liturgical hymns, the Troparion and the Kontakion, that will be sung congregationally:

When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, worship of the Trinity wast made manifest; for the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of His word. O Christ our God, Who hath appeared and enlightened the world, glory to Thee.

. . .

On this day Thou hast appeared unto the whole world, and Thy light, O Sovereign Lord, is signed on us who sing Thy praise and chant with knowledge: Thou hast now come, Thou hast appeared, O Thou Light unappproachable.

They offer a perfect lens through which to view the following icons.

Baptism of Christ by Jerzy Nowosielski
Jerzy Nowosielski (Polish, 1923–2011), The Baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan, 1964. Oil on canvas, 100 × 80 cm.
Baptism of Christ by Greta Leśko
Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), Baptism of Christ. Oil on board, 40 × 30 cm. Private collection.
Baptism of Christ by Greta Lesko
Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), Baptism of Christ, 2014. Oil on board, 40 × 40 cm.
Baptism of Christ by Greta Lesko
Two-sided processional cross and ripidions by Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), 2011. Mixed media on wood. Cross: 90 cm tall (without shaft); ripidions: 13 cm diameter. Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Górowo Iławeckie, Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship, Poland. (See reverse)
Baptism of Christ by Lyuba Yatskiv
Icon by Lyuba Yatskiv (Ukrainian, 1977–)
Baptism of Christ by Ulyana Tomkeyvch
Icon by Ulyana Tomkevych (Ukrainian, 1981–)
Baptism of Christ by Ivanka Demchuk
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Baptism of Christ, 2015. Mixed media on board on canvas, 30 × 40 cm.

Continue reading “Contemporary icons of the Baptism of Christ”

John the Baptist at the National Gallery, London

John the Baptist’s feast day is coming up on June 24, and London’s National Gallery has provided a great way to immerse yourself in his story—through art! The museum has produced a ten-video series called Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading, in which Professor Ben Quash, director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred at King’s College, joins Dr. Jennifer Sliwka, curator of art and religion at the National Gallery, for a stroll through the museum and some nearby sites to discuss various works of art in which John appears.

Quash and Sliwka teach a collaborative master’s program in Christianity and the Arts, which invites participants to

investigate how Christian scripture, beliefs and practices have found expression in art over 2,000 years; trace the idea of beauty in Western theological tradition; make use of examples in London. . . . The MA will enable students to work across disciplinary and specialism boundaries, and in particular to explore simultaneously the art-historical and theological dimensions of Christian art – approaches which are generally pursued in isolation from one another.

Their analysis of the paintings in this video series is superaccessible to those with no art background, and familiarity with Christianity isn’t assumed either.

The ten videos—about eight minutes each—are embedded below.

  1. Introduction

Artwork: Saint John the Baptist from Carlo Crivelli’s Demidoff Altarpiece

  1. Visitation

Artworks: a Visitation painting from the workshop of Goossen van der Weyden; Francesco Zaganelli’s The Baptism of Christ

  1. Birth and Naming

Artworks: scenes from Niccolò di Pietro Gerini’s Baptism Altarpiece; a predella panel by Giovanni di Paolo

  1. Infancy

Artworks: Garofolo’s The Holy Family with Saints; Bronzino’s The Madonna and Child with Saints; Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks

  1. Wilderness

Artworks: Giovanni di Paolo’s Saint John the Baptist retiring to the Desert; Saint John the Baptist by an anonymous Italian artist from about 1640–60; Moretto da Brescia’s Christ blessing Saint John the Baptist

  1. Preaching

Artworks: Raphael’s Saint John the Baptist Preaching; Pier Francesco Mola’s Saint John the Baptist preaching in the Wilderness; Parmigianino’s The Madonna and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Jerome

  1. Baptism

Artworks: the baptismal font at Salisbury Cathedral, designed by William Pye; Adam Elsheimer’s The Baptism of Christ; and the most famous painting of this subject in any collection: Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ

  1. Martyrdom

Artworks: Caravaggio’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist at St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Malta; Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavanne’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

  1. The Baptist’s Head

Artworks: Caravaggio’s Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist; Ana Maria Pacheco’s Study of Head (John the Baptist III) at a private residence (includes an interview with the artist)

  1. Power and Judgment

Artworks: the anonymous English Portrait of Richard II at Westminster Abbey (John the Baptist was his patron saint); a scene above the central panel of Giovanni dal Ponte’s Ascension of Saint John the Evangelist Altarpiece depicting John the Baptist preparing souls to enter into heaven; and The Wilton Diptych, depicting John the Baptist presenting King Richard to the heavenly retinue


To engage with more art from the National Gallery, consider buying one of the two books I reviewed here.