icon | Baptism of Christ

Icon: Baptism of Christ C-9

Crete, first half 17th century
Tempera on panel, 35 x 28 cm

Provenance: Private Collection, USA
ALR Ref. No: S00135371
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Saint John the Forerunner, wearing a brown-green mantle over an orange coloured tunic, bows forward and gently touches the head of Christ with his right hand in the act of baptism. Christ stands in the water of the river Jordan, though there is no trace of water on his body. He is dressed in a loincloth and directs his gaze to his right while He subtly makes a blessing gesture with his right hand. The name of Christ is visible in gold lettering. On the right bank, three angels with different coloured robes gaze at Christ while the fourth angel on the background seems to observe the hand of God coming from a segment of heaven. All four angels cover their hands with their cloaks in a gesture of service to Christ.(1) The angels’ long mantles create a sharp contrast with the nudity of Christ. Red cinnabar letters on the gold background state the title of the baptism scene in Greek.(2) All figures have punched haloes with one single rim of dots. Only the halo of Christ contains red lines that create a cross-nimb. The flesh coloured parts of John the Baptist and the angels are heightened with fine paralleled lines in the Byzantine manner. Many details, like the angels’ wings and the vegetation contain fine chrysography. The whole composition is placed within a narrow golden frame. The wingtips of the angels and the leaves of the small tree at the left side of the composition overlap the frame, thus bringing the scene closer to the viewer, creating a vivid effect to the traditional composition. An axe, stuck in the tree’s trunk to the left alludes to Matthew 3:10(3) “Even now the axe lies at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t bring forth good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). This quote refers to the final judgement.(4) 

The water is filled with fish, indicating the life-giving character of the water of the Baptism. In the lower part are two striking representations of small mythological water figures. In the left corner a miniature muscular river god personifying the river Jordan leans on an amphora from which water springs. Towards the right, the crowned personification of the sea, likely identifiable as Neptune, carries a trident and rides a water animal while looking up at Christ.(5) The mythological creatures’ cloth around their waists appears very classical compared to the Byzantine loincloth of Christ.(6) The representation of the two bodies of water originates from Psalm 114:3: “the sea saw and fled, the Jordan turned back.” 

The only significant difference in traditional Byzantine scenes of John baptizing Christ can be found in the arrangement of the angels.(7) The consecutive arrangement of angels above one another characterizes an icon tradition especially executed by painters from Candia.(8) Our icon can be compared to a seventeenth century Baptism in the Canellopoulos collection in Athens, with which it shares great similarities in its composition and execution.(9) Both panels show a palette of brown, red and blue and elaborately applied gold as for example in the headdress of the sea god and in the river god’s amphora. The angels’ robes are more or less similar with the exception of the first and last angel in Athens, since they wear pink robes instead of red coloured robes. Both icons testify to the hand of a very skilled Cretan master.

Lara Fernández Piqueras

1 Gregor Martin Lechner, “Taufe Christi im Jordan,” in: Ikonen Bilder in Gold: Sakrale Kunst aus Griechenland, ed. Hanna Egger, Graz 1993, pp. 228, cat. no. 31.
2 Stella Faitaki, “The Baptism,” in: The Paul and Alexandra Canellopoulos Museum: Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art, ed. by Nano Chatzidakis and Constantine Scampavias, Athens 2007, pp. 370, cat. no. 193.
3 Gregor Martin Lechner, “Taufe Christi im Jordan,” in: Ikonen Bilder in Gold: Sakrale Kunst aus Griechenland, ed. Hanna Egger, Graz 1993, pp. 228, cat. no. 31.
4 Richard Bauckham, “The Messianic Interpretation of Isa. 10:34 in the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2 Baruch and the Preaching of John the Baptist,” in: Dead Sea Discoveries, vol. 2, no. 2, Messianism (1995), pp. 210.
5 Gregor Martin Lechner, “Taufe Christi im Jordan,” in: Ikonen Bilder in Gold: Sakrale Kunst aus Griechenland, ed. Hanna Egger, Graz 1993, pp. 228, cat. no. 31.
6 Myrtali Acheimastou-Potamianou ed., Icons of the Byzantine Museum of Athens, Athens 1998, pp. 90, cat.no. 24.
7 The iconography of our icon is more or less similar to the aforementioned fifteenth century icon now in Athens.
8 Myrtali Acheimastou-Potamianou ed., Icons of the Byzantine Museum of Athens, Athens 1998, pp. 90, cat. no. 24.
9 Stella Faitaki, “The Baptism,” in: The Paul and Alexandra Canellopoulos Museum: Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art, ed. by Nano Chatzidakis and Constantine Scampavias, Athens 2007, pp. 370, cat. no. 193.