This small octagonal painting shows Christ being baptised in the river Jordan by Saint John the Baptist, his cousin. Delicate wavy white stripes around Christ’s knees show where his body has disturbed the water’s surface.
The picture’s size suggests that it was part of the predella – the lowest part – of a large altarpiece, and it has been connected with other predella panels showing scenes from the lives of John the Baptist and Saint James (now in international collections). They probably came from an altarpiece (now in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) that Agnolo Gaddi made for the chapel dedicated to Saint James and the feast of Saint John the Baptist’s beheading in the Florentine church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Lorenzo Monaco was a pupil of Gaddi, so it’s plausible that he would have been put to work on the smaller predella panels.
This small octagonal painting shows Christ being baptised in the river Jordan by Saint John the Baptist. Christ stands knee-deep in the water; the artist has painted delicate wavy white stripes around his knees to show where his body has disturbed the water’s surface. He has also taken care to include the gilding on the edge of Christ’s loincloth, a detail which distinguishes him as divine.
Saint John the Baptist has just poured a small bowl of water over Christ’s head and the Holy Ghost descends in the form of a dove, emanating golden rays of heavenly light: a sign of God’s blessing. The design of the composition is similar to Niccolò di Pietro Gerini’s altarpiece The Baptism of Christ, which is also dated to 1387.
Like Gerini’s altarpiece, this panel was probably made for the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Its size suggests that it was part of the predella of a large polyptych (an altarpiece made up of several panels). Three other panels that share the same decorative border belonged to the same predella and are now in the Louvre, Paris. John the Baptist is shown beheaded on the same panel as the feast of Herod and Salome with her mother Herodias; another panel shows the Crucifixion and the last, scenes from the life of Saint James, including his exorcism of the sorcerer Hermogenes and his beheading. One more panel with a continuation of the scene of Saint James and the sorcerer Hermogenes shows Hermogenes throwing his book of magic in the river after his exorcism. This picture, now in a private collection in the United States, has the same shape as our panel and may have been placed nearby.
Predella panels usually featured stories from the lives of the saints depicted in the main tier of an altarpiece. Since the three panels in the Louvre came from the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli and showed scenes from the lives of Saint James and Saint John the Baptist, they probably came from the altarpiece that Agnolo Gaddi made for the church’s chapel dedicated to Saint James and the feast of Saint John the Baptist’s beheading (now in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). Lorenzo Monaco was a pupil of Gaddi, so it’s plausible that he would have been put to work on the smaller predella panels.
The altarpiece was commissioned by the husband of Piera degli Albizzi after her death in 1387. Two further panels probably formed part of the predella: one shows a woman identified as Piera with her four daughters (now in a private collection in Milan) and another (now lost) showed her husband Bernardo di Cino Bartolini de' Nobili with their sons.
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