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Meditate on Christ’s baptism, guided by 3 masterpieces of art

Giotto, da Vinci, and Patinir become channels of the Holy Spirit as we contemplate this mystery in the life of Our Lord.

Giotto’s rendering of the Baptism of Christ from around the year 1305 reflects how a new creation is underway. Surrounded in light, God the Father extends his arm from above the dome that hearkens back to Genesis, while the Spirit hovers above the waters that remind us of Creation and the renewal by the Flood.

Why is the sinless Christ being baptized? Because he is on earth to re-create, to make all things new. The baptismal waters are about both death and life, and what Christ is doing in the Jordan prefigures both.

“Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders: he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan,” as Benedict XVI says, and from those depths, he rises again. Giotto presents the water as waist-deep even though it’s not on the shores at that height, showing Chris’t dominion over any death-causing powers.

Here is the first time in which Jesus stands in our place, the innocent and just man in the place of sinful humanity, taking on to himself what we must undergo (as Nicholas Senz notes in his article “Benedict XVI’s insight into the baptism of Jesus”).

Giotto focuses all of our attention on this Man standing here — his total nakedness shows that this flesh is all-pure. His arms are open to receive an even heavy burden. Does John see that as he looks down at his cousin, this lamb of God who he knows to be the One who is coming, the One whose sandals he is not worthy to unstrap?

From Andrea del Verrocchio and his famous pupil Leonardo da Vinci, we have this rendering from around 1475. John and Jesus are both powerful, vigorous men in this depiction, though Jesus’ hands are folded in humility. The public life of the Messiah is beginning and Satan’s defeat is at hand. John is as a soldier in chainmail, holding the cross as a battle standard, with the sash bearing his profession of faith: Ecce Agnus Dei, Behold the Lamb of God.

The vibrant colors of Christ’s sash point to his royalty, as the angels wait to attend him. This God-man holds power over the universe that surrounds him, from the palm tree to the evergreens.

A curious detail: the black birds. Are they beating a defeat, as if that innocent Dove has signaled the end of the reign of darkness?

Joachim Patinir’s depiction from the early 1500s gives us a new vision. This artist was a master at landscapes, which are resplendent in this work; a handful of animals are scattered about the countryside. God the Father is in the distance, peeking out from a beautiful sky holding the globe crowned by the cross, sending his Spirit toward his beloved Son with whom he is well pleased. We might see an echo of the dove leaving the ark.

In the middle distance we have an earlier scene. It’s John the Baptist with his disciples of all walks of life, including mothers with their young. The Baptist is directing them to the blue-robed Jesus watching in the background. Behold, he tells them, there is the Lamb of God.

But our eyes are drawn to the baptism underway, and specifically to Christ himself, looking straight at us. His hands are folded in acceptance of God’s will. His face is serene before the mission that he’s beginning. Isn’t it because the one he sees is his beloved, for whom he will gladly surrender himself in love? “Fear not little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom …”

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Written by Raphael Benedict

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