Piero della Francesca (Borgo San Sepolcro, c. 1420 – 1492), The Baptism of Christ, c. 1445, tempera on panel, 167 cm x 116 cm, National Gallery, London
The representation of this evangelical scene is very peculiar: it doesn’t intend to tell the event in its actual reality, but rather through its multiple meanings.
Jesus is the absolute protagonist. He’s at the center of the painting, in a meditative attitude, about to be baptised by John the Baptist. The solemnity of the scene is stressed in some way by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and by the three angels on the left, attending the event with calm and emotional involvement.
The landscape is beautiful. It resembles the hills around Arezzo, Italy, where the painter grew up and spent all his life. The reference to the Jordan River is virtually symbolic, because the water that can be seen behind Jesus is more like a small puddle than an actual river. However, the clearness of its water is important, because we can note that the precious, refined oriental garments of some characters that apparently have nothing to do with the evangelical scene are reflected in it.
This is probably a reference to the Council of Florence of 1439, which sanctioned - though only for a few years - the reconstituted peace and unity between the Eastern churches, represented by those three characters in the bottom right corner, and the Western churches. This is also plausible because the panel was commissioned by the Camaldolese monks of Borgo San Sepolcro; it had been possibly wanted by the deceased abbot Ambrogio Traversari, who had participated in the above-mentioned Council.
The power of the light in this table is impressive. It seems to bounce on the body of Christ and on the body of the penitent on the right, who is taking his clothes off. The result of this is that both the trees on the foreground and those on the background are sharply visible.
Despite the rigorous geometric construction of the painting and the perfection achieved in every detail (just note the carefully-portrayed flowers and herbs on the foreground), the panel exudes a strong religiousness, by making evident the presence of the sacred.
In the absolute silence, we can almost hear the voice of the Father: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).