P6 - Jesus Through Art: The Baptism
These activities appear in the book Jesus Through Art by Margaret Cooling by Religious and Moral Education Press. The book is out of print. Please advise if this book becomes in print again, and this section will be removed from the website. The booksChristianity Through Art and The Bible Through Art are still available from Religious and Moral Education Press.
The Baptism of Christ
by Piero della Francesca, 1415/20-1492
Introducing the painting to pupils
In the Bible, the word 'repentance' means more than 'sorry':it is also about change. This painting is partly about wrong and repentance.
Background to the Painting
Piero della Francesca (Pee-air-roh del-/a Francheskah) was born in Borgo San Sepolcro, Italy. He worked in a number of Italian towns but died in his native town in 1492. This picture was probably painted in the 1450s. It may have been created for the altar of a chapel dedicated to John the Baptist in an abbey in Borgo San Sepolcro.
Piero was interested in geometry: he wrote several treatises on maths, perspective and art. This painting is based on a circle and a square, the circle standing for heaven and the square for earth. Jesus stands in both. At the very centre of the circle, and just entering the square, is the dove, and above it are golden rays to represent God. Piero della Francesca achieved a mathematical precision in his paintings and a new treatment of light: both of these features can be seen in 'The Baptism of Christ'.
Jesus is depicted at the moment when he emerges from the water. John does not touch him: it is almost as if Jesus is surrounded by a force field. All is still and silent. Heavenly light in the form of gold lines comes from above the dove. One of the men in the background points upwards to these phenomena. Three angels stand nearby ready to dry and cover Jesus. The painting is still and calm. The only movement is a tiny trickle of water. The water appears to have stopped flowing at Jesus' feet: the shadow of the tree causes us to see the bottom of the river bed rather than the reflections on the water's surface.
This painting was first drawn on paper and 'pricked' out. It was then transferred to the panel by ground charcoal being rubbed over the holes in the paper so that the charcoal came through them. This method is called 'pouncing': the resulting tiny black dots are just visible.
This painting is tempera (see page 8) on poplar and measures 167 cm x 116 cm.
A Christian Understanding of the Biblical Story
People showed they were sorry for their wrongdoing (sins) and wanted to change by being baptized by John and starting a new life. Christians believe Jesus did no wrong, but that he chose to be baptized in order to stand by ordinary, imperfect people. Jesus stands solidly with the human race, with all its faults.
The dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit (God present and active). A dove brought news of dry land after the Flood, and Noah and his family were able to make a fresh start. Here, the dove may be a sign that Jesus will give people a fresh start with God.
1) God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all in the painting. Pupils can draw a circle and in the centre draw the dove. Just above it, golden rays can be added for God the Father. Below the dove, the top part of Jesus body can be drawn. Glitter, pastels etc can be used for this activity.
2) Pupils can imagine they are a creature (not the dove) watching the baptism of Jesus. They can write what they see and hear, retelling the story as if by an animal.
3) There are a number of symbols in the story the circle (heaven), the square (earth), gold rays (God), the dove (the Holy Spirit), water (baptism) and young plants (new life, fresh start). Pupils can select from these and produce a design for a stained-glass window, near the font, in a church. The design can be created on an overhead transparency or by using tracing-paper or tissue.
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