The North Door Panels

Panel V - Christ is baptized by John

Panel V - Christ is baptized by John


John 29:31,29. 29 the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “ behold! the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 this is he of whom I said, ‘after me comes a man who is preferred before me, for he was before me.’ 31 I did not know him; but that he should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water”.
Mark 1:11: 11 then a voice came from heaven, “ you are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased”.


John the Baptist, the precursor, the last of the prophets of the old testament, had not become a priest like his father, Zacharias, instead he had preferred to go into the wilderness, where perhaps he had been in contact with the Jewish monks of Qumran. the historical period was the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius (between 28 and 29, or 27 and 28 AD), when John returned to the southern Judean desert near the Dead Sea where it joins the river Jordan, and was preaching the coming of the kingdom of God, exhorting to conversion, and administering baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John baptized the people in the manner Ezekiel had prophesied, immersed in the water of the river: “and the nations shall know that I the Lord do sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary shall be in the midst of them forevermore. For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.” The prophet Ezekiel explained to Israel that after its great sin to God, for which it received exile, if it truly desired to live in the grace of God once more and receive his spirit, it must again be totally cleansed, and he pronounced the symbolic words of purification by water: “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean”. This was the spirit of purification in which John baptized those who came to him from Jerusalem, from all over Judaea and from the regions around the Jordan river. Two thousand years ago, the young Jesus appeared on the banks of the river. Jesus, second cousin to John who was just a few months younger, was around 30 years old at the time. Jesus observed the crowd of penitents heading to the rite of purification and forgiveness while John, who it was rumoured was the messiah, said to everyone: “I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the holy spirit and fire”. (Luke, 3:16). The symbolic meaning of baptism has vast and complex implications, and although there are similarities to the law of Moses, Christian baptism is profoundly different from the “purifying ablutions” practiced by the Jews. The cleansing required by Mosaic Law had to be repeated each time the worshiper became unclean. This was not the way John practiced baptism, nor later, the way Christians practiced baptism. Baptism performed by John was a symbol of repentance and rejection of previous conduct. Christian baptism symbolized that the individual was dedicated to God and a Christian did this only once (not repeatedly) in his lifetime. Baptism, one of the sacraments recognized by the Christian religion, takes away original sin and the sins committed up to the day when one receives it; baptism remits all pain and the baptized person can then share in the grace of God, becoming a faithful member of the Church. Baptism is performed with natural living water that can be applied in three different ways: “immersion” as in the eastern churches and the ambrosian liturgy; “infusion” that is, water poured on the head of the baptized (typically performed in western churches in the fifteenth century) and “sprinkling” (water thrown on the person being baptized, in special cases).

The baptism of Jesus is narrated in the synoptic gospels and whereas three of the versions are in accordance in their description of the event (Mark 1:9-11, Matthew 3:13-17, Luke 3:21-22), the gospel of John differs, describing instead the testimony of the baptist regarding the event of the descent of the holy spirit.

All scholars unanimously accept the historical authenticity of the episode. It would seem the Christian community could hardly have invented an episode as incomprehensible as the Christological concept that their Lord was subjected to John. Critics however, debate its total historical value regarding theophany. Determining the literary genre of the story could bring clarification though there is no consensus among scholars on this specific point. There are many suppositions regarding the event, while there is consensus regarding the objective historical fact Jesus experienced due to baptism, as he consequently felt the impulse to go into the desert and begin his mission.

The iconographic representation of the baptism of Jesus reproduces an exceptional encounter: God and humanity. Mystically, all men recognize themselves in John the Baptist as sons of the son as well as his witnesses.

- Jesus is placed in the centre of the event in iconographic representations. He is depicted naked; his nudity does not evoke real concern as it signifies the need to convey the concept of renewal and rebirth. Christ is naked because he is the man who is born again, a new man who God has been created again. Christ appears to spring out of the elements of God’s creation and is naked as was Adam: he, in truth, is Adam, the new Adam.

- Christ is often portrayed in the act of the gesture of blessing, the same gesture as in the creation and sanctification of water. This gesture emphasizes the identification of the son with his father. In many representations of the creation, God is depicted in the semblance of the ‘beloved son’ Jesus Christ, the only person of the holy trinity who was incarnate; thus, the only one who can represent and reveal his act of creation with this gesture.

- The river and water are recurrent to explain the environmental and geographic context of the event because water assumes the primordial meaning of purification. Generally, the iconography of baptism portrays Jesus immersed in water, as if he were in a tomb forming a dark cave that appears to be hell. Christ went down to hell to steal his image from the dead; in a certain sense it is reconstructing the tomb in which Christ died and from which he emerged triumphant.

- At the feet of Jesus, often two small figures are depicted, one male and one female. The male figure symbolizes the Jordan river, while the female figure, the sea. These figures are, surprisingly, legacies of pagan antiquity, which have penetrated and been consolidated into the iconography of the orthodox image of baptism. Their origin has also been determined, as they are called to illustrate the words in psalm 114.3: “the sea saw it, and fled: Jordan was driven back”. In the earliest representations of the baptism, this fact was depicted according to the traditional and customary manner in antiquity: small anthropomorphic figures represented the sea and the river. Sometimes, a snake was depicted next to these small figures, which corresponded to verse 13 of psalm 74: “ ...you broke the heads of the sea serpents in the waters.”

- The angels represented in paintings of the baptism of Jesus Christ personify the godparents, whose task it is to embrace the “baptized” when they come out of the water. The figures of the angels form, so to speak, the steps of the stairs, going up from the earth to the sky. Even the banks of the Jordan ascend steeply; everything is directed upward and in the centre there is Jesus Christ. The presence of angels is not mentioned in the gospels or in the apocrypha, but it can be explained through liturgy as a deacon assisting the bishop holds the chrism and then dresses the catechumens in a white robe. The number of angels varies from one to three, perhaps to reinforce the trinitarian symbolism of the scene, though sometimes there are four angels. Their veiled hands signify a sign of respect, according to the custom of the imperial court officials, but western artists, who were not very familiar with byzantine ceremonials, did not understand the meaning of the veils and imagined the angels had a towel to dry the catechumen or else they considered them ‘living hangers’ from which to extend the tunic to Christ, when he came out of the water.

- The symbolic image of the dove personifies the holy spirit. The cloud represents the voice of God the father from which it emanates. The descent of the holy spirit in the form of a dove conveys the movement of the father going towards his son. The holy spirit, descending upon the primordial waters, awakens life and continuing down to the waters of the Jordan, provokes the second birth of the new being.-

John the Baptist is usually depicted dressed in camel hair garments, wearing a leather belt and wrapped in a cloak. Often he is depicted as an old man, in the persona of Adam, who Christ came to redeem.

- The image of the axe stuck in the tree, found in some representations, especially of byzantine origin, comes from the very words of the precursor who speaking to the pharisees and the sadducees, warns them, “and now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.” (Matthew, 3:10).

The first early Christian iconography demonstrates the difficulties of finding a single iconographic typology to represent the baptism; consequently, it developed into various typologies. For instance, the one showing John helping Christ out of the water, the one in which Jesus is portrayed in the position of prayer or the one in which the scene is inserted within an iconographic cycle pertaining to the baptismal theme. Continuity is first found in the representation of Christ and John the baptist in front of each other in the act of impositio manuum, including the dove of the holy spirit. In the early centuries, representations of the baptism of Christ are more infrequent than depictions of other episodes of the gospel and the oldest of these, dating to the third century, all come from rome. Starting in the fourth century, the fathers of the western church composed the first catechesis and liturgy became definite and precise, consequently stabilizing iconographic representations. Between the ninth and tenth centuries iconography of immersion in the Jordan disappears in western art, as the practice of baptism by infusion or sprinkling began to be more widespread.

The iconography of the baptism of Jesus was developed according to three typologies:
1. Christ, naked, immersed in the Jordan, while John lays his hand on Christ’s head; 2. Christ, wearing a loincloth, is standing in the river and John pours water on his head.
3. Christ, dressed in a tunic, kneeling on the shore in front of the Baptist and the Baptist kneeling in front of him.

The panel representing the baptism of Christ created by Lorenzo Ghiberti belongs to the group of panels produced in the second phase of his work on the North Door (1407-15), as Krautheimer ascertained (1937; 1956). In this phase of his work, the artist represents the international Gothic style, structuring the entire composition around a single central figurative element. The representation of the event follows already well-established iconography. The figure of Christ is in the centre of the panel; he is standing in the river, blessing (the gesture signifies the act of creation, identifying it with God), while his face is turned downward, remissive, receiving baptism. The holy spirit is depicted over the head of Jesus in the image of the dove with outstretched wings. St John is to his left in the act of pouring the baptismal water over his head. The group of three angels and a boy to the right of Jesus represent a counterpoint to the composition, as this group of “spectators” appear to have a life of their own. The main figures, the young man and an angel, are standing informing each other of the event, while the two angels in flight are observing what is happening, lending human dynamism to the composition, as opposed to the static nature of the mystical figures of Jesus and John the Baptist. The angels personify Godparents, whose task it is to embrace the “baptized”, when they come out of the water. The figures of the boy and the angels form, so to speak, the steps of the stairs, going up from the earth to the sky. The geometric pattern of the composition shows Christ framed by figures on either side of him, which draw two opposite semi-circles surrounding the body of Jesus. The figures are elegant in posture and their draperies, recalling the Gothic style of the composition. The naturalistic background is composed of rocks, the running river, leafy shrubs and the realistic tree behind the baptist, lending the composition a reference to the Renaissance style of which Ghiberti was an exceptional interpreter.

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