Episode 7 | Baptism | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading | National Gallery, London


Jenny, where better to begin this episode,
which is thinking about baptism, than Salisbury Cathedral? Particularly Salisbury Cathedral,
because it has this stupendous font that was installed recently in 2008. It’s the most
stunning visual object. It’s extraordinary, because as you approach
the font, the water is so still that it actually looks far more mirror-like with these amazing
reflections of the stained glass. You don’t realise it’s water until you hear the sound
of this pouring over the edges, and you realise that this is alive. Living water is a wonderful way of putting
it and, of course, deeply symbolic. This is the water in Christian tradition, the water
of baptism gives life. The fact that it’s moving all the time, not static, but moving
all the time, I think, communicates that sense of life. The water has life, and the water
gives life. Absolutely. And you can see how William Pye,
who designed this, he’s a water sculptor by tradition. He approaches the design of this
font very carefully. You can see, not only has he thought about the inscriptions to include,
but also he’s looked back to the early traditions of baptismal fonts. Of course, in that early
Christian tradition, it was a baptism of full immersion. Of course, that’s still practiced
today, but more often, we see infant baptisms, a baptism by affusion. That, of course, is
when the priest takes up water, sometimes with his hand or a little cup or a shell,
and pours it over the child’s head. It’s referring back to this very early tradition in the church,
isn’t it? Just by its sheer size. That’s right. And
also its shape. It’s in the shape of a cross. It’s cruciform. This is fundamentally important,
as well, because what Christians believe is that when they are baptised, they are united
with Christ in his death, and also in what lies beyond his death, which is his resurrection.
The inscriptions, as you say, pick up exactly on these themes. This one says, “When you
pass through the waters, I will be with you.” God guaranteeing safe passage, if you like,
through death to a safe arrival on the other side. Part of that passage through the waters, surely,
is about that ritual cleansing as well, both literal and symbolic? Washing. It’s the symbol also of washing,
and the washing away of sin, which is a very important continuity with the baptism of John
the Baptist. Of course, he wasn’t offering a baptism of union with Christ, because Christ
hadn’t yet died or been risen, but he was offering a baptism of purification, of washing
away sins. That is a hugely important aspect of the language that’s used in the liturgy
of baptism. There are many symbols in the liturgy. Water
is the central element. It’s fascinating that we owe that to John the Baptist himself. In
many traditional forms of baptism, oil was used to anoint, and in some cases still is.
The dressing in new clothes, white clothes, to symbolise the purified state. Giving a
name is something that happens at a baptism, a name to the child, but also using the name
of God, the Trinitarian name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I baptise thee in the name of the Father,
Son, and the Holy Ghost. Absolutely. That’s essential. One last, very
important element is the giving of a lighted candle. That, too, symbolises transition from
darkness, the darkness of sin, to light, the realm of new existence, purified existence. That’s very interesting. When I hear you talk
about light and dark, it strikes me that that’s something that artists often pick up on and
use it as part of their visual language. I’m thinking in particular of the National Gallery’s
painting by Adam Elsheimer, who really uses that dramatic contrast of light and dark to
make a lot of the points that you were just describing. Before we go back to the National Gallery,
we should have a little wander around. It would be unjust not to. Ben, this is the painting I was thinking about
when we were in Salisbury Cathedral and you were talking about light and dark. It’s Adam
Elsheimer’s, he’s a German artist, it’s his painting on copper of the baptism of Christ
by John. It was painted in about 1599. And the reason I thought of it is particularly,
do you see this foreground figure cast in shadow and the way that is sort of playing
off of the figures in the light behind him? So it seems that this figure, who seems to
be undoing his sandals, is preparing himself for baptism. Behind him you actually have
the figure of John in the act of baptising Christ. He’s the one who’s bending over here.
Can you see just the key moments are picked out in light, notably John the Baptist’s hand
with the trickle of water there? And that play of light and dark reminds me of aspects
of the baptismal ritual. I bet a Christian looking at this image would
have identified this dark figure and perhaps the one behind who seems to have been baptised
and is in the light as representing their own Christian transition from darkness to
light. What Elsheimer’s particularly known also for
is his landscapes. You see this beautiful, very German-looking, lush forest landscape.
And I’m always delighted by the inclusion of this waterfall that seems so closely associated
with John the Baptist. You see it seems to almost be falling on his head. It’s true, a cascade there and then another
cascade from his hand to Christ. That’s beautiful. Isn’t it? It seems to me that the whole picture, the
separating of light and dark, the highlighting of light and the emphasis on shade and contrast
to light, has an element of judgment. Even in some ways in anticipation of the Last Judgment.
There’s other things in the picture, too, that speak of that: the heavens opening, Heaven
shining down through this gap in the clouds and bringing out where there’s good, where
there’s bad, where there’s light and where there’s dark. And even talking of details, the tiny, tiny,
figures, you can barely see them up on the hillside at the top left. They seem to me
to be among these various felled trees, again sort of a symbol of judgment that John used
in his preaching. He said that the axe is laid to the root of the trees, the unworthy
trees, which will be cut down and destroyed. Yes, and as you described that kind of rending
of the skies, I love how these putti are encircling their arms and creating what I always think
of as kind of a celestial architecture, they become like cupola or a lantern allowing that
beam of light to enter. It’s extraordinary that Elsheimer can include so much in this
tiny little copper, which I think must have been used in a domestic interior. This is
a small work that requires this close look at it and examination You’ve got to get near it. It provides a very nice contrast with a painting
we have here, the same subject, that Piero della Francesca ‘Baptism’ that we looked at
in the introduction. If you think about the idea that they’re representing the same subject
but in a very different visual language, I think that that language has to do with northern
artists and Italian artists but also for the very function of the image. This one for a
domestic interior for quiet, individual contemplation perhaps and the other as an altarpiece that
would be inviting congregations and that would be visible from a great distance. So perhaps
we should revisit the Piero and have another look? Ben, this is Piero della Francesca’s altarpiece
that was painted for the Camaldolese abbey in Borgo Sansepolcro, this little town in
Tuscany. Unlike the tiny little Elsheimer that we just looked at, you can see already
the scale of this picture. It’s meant to be read from a distance. And the visual language
is entirely different from what we saw in Elsheimer. Curiously the architecture of the gallery
gives us a little bit of a sense of it having it’s own space and its own chapel, almost
a sort of chapel, isn’t it? Precisely, and actually, this room in the
National Gallery was designed specifically for this artwork, so that you would be able
to approach it in a sort of quiet, more contemplative mode. There’s a beautifully contemplative atmosphere,
isn’t it? The stillness of these floating clouds and the sense that the dove, which
represents the Holy Spirit, is almost like one of those clouds, just poised, incredibly
still, directly above Christ’s head. Almost perspectivally of course that dove
seems to be flying out into our space. Piero is known as an absolute master of perspective,
and he was very interested in science and in optics. And what you actually see here,
and this confuses a lot of people, I think, including our students, but it looks like
you can see the pebbles of the riverbed, and that actually, Christ is not standing in the
water. What seems to be represented, in fact, is that we the beholder are standing in the
riverbed as well. And you know, when you approach a river, if you look directly down, you can
see the pebbles and let’s say the fish at the bottom of the river, but if – If the angle’s right, yes. Precisely, but if you look at a distance,
you might well see something like this: the reflections of the clouds, and it seems that
Piero has beautifully evoked that in his Baptism. And Christ’s feet and the Baptist’s feet are
placed at exactly the point where our vision shifts, from seeing through the water to seeing
just onto the surface, which feels to me like a wonderful metaphor for how you might always
see more; I mean, in this scene, there are many mysteries. The kind of difference between literal seeing
and figurative or metaphorical or spiritual seeing. It’s like Piero’s riffing on that. it’s odd that Christ is baptised in Christian
tradition because he is sinless, so he doesn’t need to be baptised, and John actually says
that, “I shouldn’t be baptising you; you ought to baptise me.” It remains something of a
mystery in Christian tradition, but it’s often been thought that the main purpose of it is
to show his total solidarity with humanity. But of course, there’re different kinds of
baptism, and in this one, yes, we see John’s baptism of Christ, but John himself undergoes
a sort of baptism, doesn’t he? Of a different kind. He does. Not Christian baptism, as such, as
in the Sacrament, but he, at the end of his life, will be martyred. And martyrdom was
viewed by the early church as equivalent of baptism, or indeed, another kind of baptism;
baptism in blood. That, I think, is what we’re going to look at in our next episode, isn’t
it? Yes, we’re going to focus on John’s martyrdom.

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