John the Baptist - the baptism of Christ



'There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.
And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
' (Mark ch1 v 7 - 11)

   This topic raises the question of the relationship between Christ and John the Baptist. The Christian view, drawn from the gospels, is that John was the 'precursor' of Christ, whose task was to signal the Messiah to come. Many scholars question this, and there are hints in the gospels that the followers of the two did not always get along. Could they have been rivals? One interesting theory is that they regarded themselves as joint Messiahs. Once the Romans were out of the way Christ, descendant of David, would be king, while John, descendant of the first High Priest, Aaron, would be the high priest. Of course there is very little evidence to back this up. For an interesting take on all the various theories, read The Masks of Christ by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince. The works of these authors are generally regarded with deep suspicion, but I found the book well researched and convincing.
 Let's put this aside and focus on the iconography of images of the baptism, one of the earliest subjects in Christian art. Below are some of the oldest images, dating from the second and third century. The first two are from the catacombs in Rome; the second two from early Christian sarcophagi.
    It is clear from the gospel texts that Christ was an adult when baptised. So why do these images show children?


Santa Maria Antigua, Rome, c 270.


Museo Nazionale delle Terme, Rome
  The answer is that these images are not intended as representations of the historical event, but are symbols of the sacrament of baptism. Baptism was seen as a rebirth, and the nude children represent that.  Nudity also referred to the pre-lapsarian Adam and Eve. John's hand does not appear to be pouring water over Christ's head - baptism was a matter of total immersion. Rather, it repesents annointing, or the laying on of hands.
     Let's move on a couple of centuries and visit the wonderful town of Ravenna, and its famous baptisteries.
    Above left is the central mosaic from the Arian Baptistery in Ravenna. Above right is the mosaic from the Neonian or Orthodox Baptistery across town. Although the Neonian Baptistery is earlier - it was built at the end of the fourth century - the mosaics in both date from the end of the fifth and the beginning of the sixth century.
    The difference in the portrayal of Christ is striking. In the Arian baptistery Christ is shown as a naked boy, perhaps a little older than the images in the catacombs or on the sarcophagi. In the Neonian baptistery Christ is a bearded adult.  It can be argued - though not very convincingly - that the Arian version was drawn from Arian theology, that claimed that Christ was not equal to God and was created after Him. But would the image truly suggest that? I would suggest that the mosaics simply draw on earlier material for inspiration; those sarcophagi for the Arian baptistery (there are are plenty of sarcophagi in Ravenna) and the depiction of pagan gods in the Neonian baptistery. Curiously, both images have a pagan reference: the other figure is the personification of the River Jordan, effectively a river god.
    Now for some later versions. An important element of many of these is the depiction of the Trinity.

Giotto: Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Mosaic, Basilica of San Marco, Venice, c1350

Giusto de Menabuoi: Baptistery, Padua

Masolino da Panicale: Baptistery, Castiglione Olona


Piero della Francesca: National Gallery, London

El Greco: Galleria Estense, Modena

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