Christ is shown crouching in the river Jordan as Saint John baptises him, pouring water over his head. An angel and two cherubs carry a red drapery to wrap around Christ after baptism. The sky has opened up to reveal the intense light of heaven where the bearded figure of God the Father is surrounded by cherubs. According to the Gospels, God declared: ‘This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3: 17). The Holy Ghost, represented as a dove, soars down from heaven through a circle of naked winged cherubs.
This work is thought to have been painted during the artist’s stay in Venice from 1598 to 1600. The vibrant colours, the dramatic use of light as a way of reinforcing the narrative and the dynamic movement of the figures creating a zig-zag type of composition reflect the works of his Venetian contemporaries, particularly Tintoretto and Veronese.
Although this picture is small, it has the appearance of a grand altarpiece. Adam Elsheimer painted the scene on a copper support, as was usual for him; the surface illuminates the paint from behind, particularly suitable here, where he has portrayed radiant divine light. A variety of figures and a vast landscape fill the small space to create a bold and dramatic scene of the baptism of Christ.
According to the Gospels, when Christ was baptised in the river Jordan by Saint John the Baptist, God spoke from heaven: ‘This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3:17). The deep blue sky has opened up to reveal the intense light of heaven, where the bearded figure of God the Father is surrounded by cherubs. Christ is filled with the Holy Ghost, represented as a dove soaring down through a circle of naked winged cherubs. Translucent rays of light extend like spotlights from heaven. This moment of divine sanction was the beginning of Christ’s ministry.
Christ is shown crouching in the river as John baptises him. The shape of his bent knees is mirrored by the folds of the red drapery being carried towards him by a large angel, which two cherubs prepare to wrap around him; its colour symbolises his divine kingship. With his left hand, Christ gestures towards the figure in the lower right corner who is removing a shoe. He is completely in shadow, but his silhouette is striking against the dazzling light of the rest of the scene. In a picture in which the divine is strongly associated with bright white light, he might be shown in darkness to represent the spiritual emptiness of those who have not yet been baptised. Behind him are a woman breastfeeding a baby, a black man and – prominently highlighted by the trunk of a dead fir tree – a man in a turban (this was a traditional way to represent those of ‘eastern’ origin). He is prompted to watch the baptism by a figure dressed as a knight in a plumed headdress. It has been suggested that these figures might represent Africa, Asia and Europe.
Christ and John’s connection to each other is emphasised by the position of their right arms: they both seem to project into the viewer’s space, focusing attention on the most crucial element of the picture. Their left hands overlap at their wrists, closing off a semi-circle which rises through the sweeping curve of John’s left arm, leading the eye towards his face and right hand. The intense light from heaven has highlighted the muscles and sinews of John and Christ, and their dynamic poses make them appear like a strongly lit sculptural group. This is the first time that Elsheimer had included the naked body in a complex pose in his painting, and he may have been inspired by the work of his contemporary Johann Rottenhammer, a fellow German painter also working in Venice.
Another German painter, Albrecht Altdorfer, may have been the source of the ring of dancing angels. Altdorfer included the motif in his Nativity of the Virgin (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), which Elsheimer may have seen in the south German city of Regensburg, its location in the sixteenth century. Altdorfer was a master of painting lush forested landscapes and the sensitivity with which Elsheimer has painted the densely wooded backdrop to this scene, complete with waterfall, also reflects his work.
The Baptism of Christ is thought to have been painted during Elsheimer’s stay in Venice in the last two years of the sixteenth century; he moved from there to Rome in 1600. The vibrant colours, the dramatic use of light as a way of reinforcing the narrative, the dynamic movement of the figures creating a zig-zag type of composition and the use of impasto in the figures reflect the works of his Venetian contemporaries, particularly Jacopo Tintoretto and Veronese.
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