‘The world holds its breath in this painting:’ The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca

May 27, 2017 at 2:21 pm (Art)

The Baptism of Christ,by
Piero della Francesca
Date made: 1450s
 The National Gallery, London

The world holds its breath in this painting; as hushed and still, ordered, cool and clear as a crystal. This is the moment when Christ, being baptised by Saint John in the River Jordan, is revealed as the Son of God. The Holy Spirit descends on him ‘like a dove’ (Mark 1:10) and his hands are closed in prayer to his Heavenly Father. It is unique moment in history, and is also timeless. The original viewers would once have recognised Christ’s divinity anew every time they worshipped beneath this altarpiece. Now in the National Gallery many still do, but for others  today this lonely, pale figure at the centre of things is just a human being like ourselves. Stripped bare, he looks deeply into his own heart, reflecting on his destiny. We have all known decisive moments like this, when nothing will ever be the same again, and we ourselves will be changed. Soon the dove must fold its wings, the river flow again, and the baptismal water will trickle down over Christ’s head; and he will step forward to confront and embrace his future. Another man behind Christ readies himself for baptism. Because this picture shows a universal experience, Piero della Francesca has relocated Palestine to the familiar countryside of Tuscany, near his native town of Borgo San Sepolcro.

This description appears in Masterpieces from the National Gallery. First published in 2000, a revised edition came out in 2003; it was reprinted in 2004. The author is Erika Langmuir.

Stunned by the beauty and depth of insight reflected in this commentary, I resolved to find out more about this writer. She held a Masters in Art History from Stanford and earned a doctorate from London’s Warburg Institute, where she studied under the renowned art historian Professor Sir Ernst Gombrich. Having  led an extraordinarily eventful and fascinating life, Ms Langmuir passed away in December of 2015 at  the age of 84. An affectionate an illuminating  tribute by her daughter is well worth reading.

Erika Langmuir receiving an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1995. Daughter Val is at the far left.

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