This panel was probably commissioned as an altarpiece for a chapel dedicated to John the Baptist by the Abbey of Borgo Sansepolcro perhaps in the mid-1450s. Borgo Sansepolcro was the birthplace of the artist and it seems very probable that the town which appears in the middle distance in this picture (just to the left of Christ’s hip) is in fact a representation of Piero’s birthplace set in the landscape of eastern Tuscany. The stream (hardly a river) in which the baptism is taking place beautifully reflects the surrounding landscape. In the extreme foreground Piero has tried to represent that point at which the optical properties of water change from reflection to translucence and we see the river bed. One has to say that this has not really come off.
Here we are privy to the moment at which John baptises Christ with a few drops of (Tuscan) water. The head of Jesus occupies the very centre of the composition; John’s simple receptacle is precisely positioned directly above Christ’s head and the dove hovers in the stillness exactly in line with this central vertical axis while at the same time marking the horizontal transition between the upper lunette shape and the main rectangular body of the picture. This is a direct pictorial realisation of the description in Mark’s Gospel where we are told that the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, appeared over Christ’s head during the baptism. Three angels witness the event impassively, their statuesque poses reminiscent of classical representations of the Three Graces, while other players in the drama including the next candidate for baptism are oblivious to the solemnity of the occasion. Near the right-hand edge of the picture, in the middle distance, we see one of Piero’s trademark funny hats adorning a priest-like figure, a member of a group which seems to be proceeding away from the scene.
Like all of Piero’s work, The Baptism of Christ is suffused with an enigmatic stillness and a cool luminosity. It is this austere gravity coupled with the obvious mathematical precision of his compositions (stemming from a pursuit of the secrets of mathematical perspective which led Piero to publish a number of treatises on the subject) which appeal to the modern eye
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
c1450 Jean Fouquet: Étienne Chevalier and St Stephen, Berlin, Staatliche Museen
1450’s Paolo Uccello: Battle of San Romano, London, National Gallery