Baptism of Christ

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Pierro Della Francesca, Baptism of Christ, 145

By EMMA SHAPIRO



In Baptism of Christ, John holds a bowl over Christ's head, and a dove hovers overhead in the same plane. Pierro Della Francesca methodically placed these objects in the center of the painting, splitting it in halves. Additionally, he paints a tree to separate the angels from the baptism. Aside from the placement of the tree being aesthetically pleasing, Francesca aligned it there in order to incorporate the golden ratio. Many artists utilize the golden ratio because it achieves both beauty and harmony, as observed here. Beyond painting, Piero Della Francesca possessed a vast understanding of mathematics, and how to incorporate it into a painting to emphasize theme.The hovering dove and lift of John's foot mimics one of Euclid's propositions which incorporates a triangle and pentagon. The triangle may represent the Trinity, and the pentagon Christ's five wounds. Francesca uses different shapes to represent elements of the painting in deeper degrees. The circle represents the heavens, and the rectangle the earth. The dove sits on the intersection between heaven and earth, a direct representation of the holy spirit. Christ's cloth hits his waist precisely at the bottom of the arch, pulling him in with the heavens. The tree and and John stand in equal distance from Christ, dividing the canvas into thirds. Geometry not only adds to composition of the painting, but the underlying ideas. This abstraction of form adds to Piero Della Francesca's paintings' timeless beauty, and enables his works to hold recognition through the modern era.


Michael Baxandall wrote of Baptism of Christ in his book, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy. He focuses on relationships in this specific painting rather than the geometry. He discusses the interaction between the angels to the left, and how in their body language "we become active accessories to the event" and that the feeling of being involved in the event creates a "a compound experience" (76). We see the actual baptism of Christ clearly, while left in suspicion over the angels' conversation. Baxandall claims that "the clarity of one kind of access is enriched by the intimacy of the other, noting that although we are in the shadows of the angels' goings on, the mixture of the intimacy and clarity enrich the experience. Pierro Della Francesca enhances the viewer's understanding of the painting with inclusion of both geometry and meticulous rotations of the body.

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