Friday, 17 April 2015

Art History post - Piero della Francesca - Baptism of Christ

Baptism of Christ, Piero della Francesca, 1450, National Gallery in London

Hello everyone,

It has been a long time since I wrote an art/art history blog post and this is something I really enjoyed doing on the blog and sharing some of things I know about paintings. I have spent the last few days trying to decide which painting to share with you all. I have so many favourites that it is hard to pick something but in the end I decided to write about this beautiful painting by Piero della Francesca called The Baptism of Christ. This was one of the first paintings I learnt about and I think it might even be the first painting I ever wrote an art history essay about!

One of the reasons I really love this painting is when I first started learning about it it really wasn't a painting that appealed to me at all. I remember thinking "well this is going to be boring". It wasn't a subject matter that I was particularly interested in or the style and I think I just thought it was going to be old and boring! But, the more I learnt about this painting the more I grew to love it. It was the first painting that I studied first and then went to see in the National Gallery in London and it actually gave me goosebumps!

There is so much you could write about this painting but I hope that this blog post will just give you a little taster!

The Artist: Piero della Francesca

Self portrait of the artist taken from one of his other paintings,  The Resurrection  c.1460

  • Born c.1415/20 - 1492 in Borgo Sansepolcro which is town in Tuscany, Italy.
  • He was also a mathematical theorist and although a respected artist at the time with high profile patrons, he was most well known for this.
  • His work is considered to be part of the Early Renaissance and the medium he is most known for is Painting and Fresco (which is a type of mural painting which you paint directly into wet plaster).
  • He was believed to have gone blind in old age
  • He was buried in Sansepolcro.

What for and how?

The painting is tempera on panel (poplar). The painting was painted before the invention of oil paints so would have used coloured pigments (this was often ground up insects, semi precious stones etc) with a binder such as egg, honey, glue etc to make a paint.

The painting was painted onto wooden panel. At the time, this was the most common way of painting. It requires a rather lengthy process to prepare the panel to be ready to be painted on including sanding, coating the panel and applying gesso (which is a bit like a primer).

Poplar wood was most commonly used in Italy for panel painting. The Mona Lisa is also painted on Poplar.

The painting was the central section of a polyptych (which is an altarpiece formed of many panels). The painting was commissioned by the Camaldolese abbey in Sansepolcro (his home town) for the chapel of Saint John the Baptist (inside the abbey).

Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, 1432 as an example of a polyptych. You can see the many different panels which make up this altarpiece. They are usually hinged so you can fold the altarpiece.

What is happening in the painting?

Christ is in the centre being baptised by John the Baptist which is fitting for it's original setting of the chapel of Saint John the Baptist inside the Camaldolese abbey (now cathedral). Christ has his hands clasped in prayer and John is gently pouring the water on Christ's head. The painting is very linear which creates a still, calm feel and you sense that the scene is quiet and peaceful. If you were to take a pencil and draw all the lines on the painting you would find many straight lines such as the long bodies, the trees etc as well gentle archs which gives the painting its calm feel. Francesca had a love of geometry and the mathematical beauty and harmony so he uses this in his paintings. Directly above Christ is a white dove which symbolises the holy spirit. It is possible that originally, above the painting was another painting representing God and the heavens which would have then completed the holy trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

In the background is believed to be the rolling hills of Borgo Sansepolcro which was both Francesca's home town the town in which the abbey who commissioned the painting was located. The congregation of the church would have therefore recognised the landscape. The stream could symbolise the River Jordan which is believed to be where Jesus was baptised. 

To the left of Christ is three angels witnessing the baptism and behind John is another man removing his shirt to also be baptised.

Hope you enjoyed this little introduction into this painting. It is even more beautiful when you see it in person!

Would love to hear your thoughts on this blog post. Did you enjoy it? Did you know this painting before you had read this or not? Should I make art posts a regular feature?

Thanks for reading

The Dorothy Days X


  1. Really enjoyed this post!

  2. Hi! Thanks for this post - I really enjoyed it!

    One thing I wondered - What happened to the other paintings from the original Polyptych? Just wondered if you knew!


  3. Thank you so much for your kind comments :)

    I do not know what happened to the other paintings. Would love to know though!


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