Day 89 – The Baptism

Juan de Pareja, The Baptism of Christ, 1660s, The Prado, Madrid.

Yesterday we saw Velázquez’ beautiful portrait of Juan de Pareja, and last Thursday, Pareja’s own Flight into Egypt (Picture Of The Day 85 & 88). Today, I want to look at his Baptism of Christ. As only ten of Pareja’s works have so far been identified, talking about two of them might seem excessive, but, as I said, I want to look at it… I find him fascinating. I’m also beginning to think, with admittedly no time or resources for much research, that his three decades working as an assistant came to fruition in the last decade of his life, when he was finally free to paint for himself, and his style must have developed very quickly. The Flight into Egypt was lovely, I thought, entirely charming, but there was something awkward, maybe even a little staid about it. In the Baptism of Christ he really lets rip, and whereas the earlier work (it is dated 1658) is more like a Venetian painting from the first half of the 16th Century (apart from the Spanish fashion, that is), this is a truly Spanish 17th Century painting. 

We are fully into the baroque, with movement, drama, contrasts of light and shade, strong diagonals both across the picture surface and into depth, and just a few more details than you really need. It’s glorious! The main element of the narrative is treated as the Epiphany it really was, with a flash of light singing out from the darkness on either side. Back in the day the Feast of the Baptism of Christ was celebrated on the same day as the Feast of the Epiphany (6 January), until the church separated them to allow for more celebrations. In one, the Wise Men recognise the boy born to be King, and kneel down before him, and in the other we have the acknowledgement that Jesus is the Son of God. The Central axis, shifted onto a diagonal, shows all three members of the Holy Trinity, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in white. While the Father is in white from head to foot, with a long white beard, the Holy Spirit, as a dove, sports pure white feathers. Although Jesus only wears a white loin cloth, his skin is pale – reflecting his high status. He is certainly far paler than the very swarthy John the Baptist, who has, after all, spent some time in the wilderness by now. The areas of the painting on either side are far darker, but there is a transition into the shadows, with the angel in white on the left, and a lamb, whose head is white, with the body getting gradually darker, to the right.

The Baptism of Christ is described, with variations, in the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, but I’m just going to quote from Matthew to make things simpler. This is Matthew 3:1-4, in which John is seen as fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah (the King James Version calles him Esaias), as the ‘voice crying in the wilderness’: 

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.

The scene of John ‘preaching in the wilderness of Judaea’ is depicted in the top left-hand corner of the painting, way into the background. Many people have gathered, and some have even climbed up into the trees to get a better view. John stands with his back to one of the trees, our attention drawn towards him by the light that shines on him from our left. He is near to the patch of blue sky, and one of the two men with bright white turbans points towards him. He is shown wearing the ‘raiment of camel’s hair’ which was his habitual garb. Many artists were not entirely sure what ‘camel’s hair’ would look like, but he is usually dressed roughly in some form of animal skin, with more of his arms and legs showing than would be appropriate for civilised society – and certainly for the churches in which the paintings were displayed. However, just in case ‘camel’s hair’ looked too low-status he is often given a royal-red cloak, as he is in the main image here. I have deliberately stretched this detail further out to the right than necessary, because I love the way that one of the angel’s wings runs parallel to one of the trees – the composition of the painting runs across both diagonals, as we shall see.

Matthew 3:5-6 continues the story:

Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.

Pareja includes this too, in the bottom right-hand corner. One person kneels as he is baptised, while others, scantly clad, await their turn sitting on the rock just below, or standing to the right. There are also some women, lining up with children, next to a waterfall coming down the adjacent hill. In this detail you can see the reed cross that the Baptist often carries – it is often made out of bamboo – and here there is a scroll wrapped round it saying ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’ – ‘Behold the Lamb of God’. This is actually a quotation from the Gospel of St John 1:29:

The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.

In the main image Pareja has combined this with the Baptism itself, just to drive the point home. Jesus is there, and there is a lamb off to the right, and there is the scroll saying ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ – we are not left in any doubt as to what is going on. Why a lamb? Well, I’m sure I mentioned this around Easter (POTD 21 & 22), but Easter falls at the same time as Passover, and it was the Passover meal – during which a sacrificial lamb is eaten – which was being celebrated at the Last Supper. From a Christian viewpoint, Jesus becomes the sacrificial Passover lamb.

All three of the synoptic gospels then have some version of the following – although I am going to quote from Matthew again, in this case 3:16-17:

And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

There are many things about the Baptism of Christ that make it important. It is one of the sacraments in which Jesus himself participated, which is why it is one of the two sacraments followed by both Protestant and Roman Catholic churches alike (the Catholics have five more). But also, embodied within one or two verses is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity – the ‘Spirit of God’ is mentioned, as is a voice saying ‘This is my beloved Son’, which implies that the words are spoken by the Father. Not only that, but it says, quite specifically, ‘the Spirit… descending like a dove’, which explains why, in 99% of images of the Holy Spirit, it is shown as a dove. 

There is no mention of any accompanying angels in any of the biblical narratives of the Baptism, and yet they had become part of the iconography of its representation. This was how you showed it. Necessary to paintings of the Baptism were Jesus, John the Baptist and the River Jordan, although the Holy Spirit is almost always there, and God the Father is implied, even if he is not visible. But some members of the angelic host are usually present as well, and very often they assist by holding Jesus’s clothes, his red robe and his blue cloak, as they do here. Pareja has added a third angel, who has no specific wardrobe-related role, but he may be alluding to the Holy Trinity by deliberately including three angels. If he was really clever (or if his patron was), he could have been alluding to the three angels who visited Abraham back in the Old Testament. Early Christian theologians interpreted Abraham’s three guests as representing the Holy Trinity, and the Orthodox Church, which had an interdiction against representing God directly, chose to show the New Testament Holy Trinity by reference to this story (I must show you the most famous example of that some time). As it is, Pareja had dressed them with great refinement. On the right, the angel holding Christ’s blue cloak has a paler blue collar on his off-white/pale primrose robe. This delicately coloured garment is cut down the leg, with a gold-embroidered hem, and reveals a delicate coral pink lining, which echoes both Jesus’s pink cloak held by a second angel, and the fluttering red sash the latter wears as a belt. Like the Guardian Angel in Pareja’s Flight into Egypt (POTD 85), the second angel has pseudo-Roman peep-toe boots. The third angel is behind a tree, so we can’t see his clothes too well, but he does have rather fine sandals. 

The angels complete a diagonal of sanctity, which starts with God the Father, passes through the Holy Spirit and Jesus, and broadens out to the right-hand angel. Along the other diagonal we have John the Baptist – he is preaching in the top left, baptising Jesus in the centre, and dealing with the multitudes at the bottom right. It is a masterful construction, remarkable for its ability to include a wealth of both narrative detail and theological significance. It also seems a remarkable leap from the relatively straightforward depiction of the Flight into Egypt we saw last week. It’s not entirely clear when it was painted: you can see Pareja’s signature on the rock at the bottom left of the detail with the angels, and a date which could read 1667, and yet the Prado is unspecific, saying just ’17th Century’. I’ve also seen 1661 suggested, which could be another reading of this inscription. As Pareja died in 1670 it must certainly have been before then – which is why I have suggested ‘1660s’. He was certainly an artist who knew what he was doing – if only there were more paintings by him – or that he had had more time to practice his craft freely.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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