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Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 3

Lesson 3: Painting in central Italy

Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ

Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ, 1450s, tempera on wood, 167 x 116 cm (National Gallery, London). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Woman: Looking at a very large panel painting by Piero della Francesca of the baptism of Christ. This is a typical subject that we see a lot. Man: But not a typical treatment. Piero was one of those Renaissance artists that I think the modern era has loved. In part because of the emphasis on geometry and a kind of abstraction of space and form. Woman: He really stands out as having a really unique style in the early Renaissance. It's defined by a kind of stillness of the figures, a kind of quietness. Man: It has all of the characteristics of an ideal moment. This is the moment literally the moment when John allows the water to pour from that bowl onto Christ's head and would be that moment when the Holy Spirit in the form of the dove appears. Woman: John is so ever so gently and tentatively pouring that water over Christ, who of course Christ asked John to baptize him and John at first refused and Christ insisted because John said, "No you should baptize me." Man: The angels on the left look equally concerned and there is a kind of tentativeness. Look at the focus in John's eyes. Woman: The sort of tentativeness is expressed in his left hand. Man: Yes, oh absolutely, and you can see that in the hands of the angels as well. Woman: There is a kind of stillness and sense of linearity to the figures. Christ occupies the exact center of the composition directly under the dove. He stands in a lovely contropposto with his hands in prayer. Man: There is a really strict geometry. You have the verticality that you already mentioned. But not only was there bilateral symmetry of Christ's body in the center of the canvas but of John being quite strayed of the angels very erect, the tree, all the trees. Then there is a series of perfect horizontals. Look at the way that John's belt continues the movement of the man who is taking off his shirt to the right, moves across Christ's waist and picks up the belt of the middle angel. So you have a kind of perfect horizontal that moves across that is echoed by the horinzontality of the dove, whose line is continued by the clouds, and then there are a series of circles. The painting itself is an arch but that arch of that circle is picked up and continued by the arc of the top of the cloth that covers Christ's waist and then by John's hand and arm and even by the sort of line that is created as the man pulls his shirt over his head so that you've got really this sort of continued negative arc or the bottom of the arc of the circle. Woman: This love of geometry. We know that perspective was something that Piero also was really interested in and wrote a treatus about. This interest in the mathematical foundations of beauty and harmony is something that we really see very broadly in the early renaissance. Man: I think that there is an additional kind of peculiarity, which has to do with the placement. Clearly this is not the middle east. The hill town that we see just below Christ's elbow is clearly of Tuscany. Woman: Maybe even where Piero was from, which was Borgo Santo Sepolcro. Man: That's right but we have a reference to the river Jordan in back of Christ, which is in and of itself a sort of peculiar almost minimized and abstracted into a little stream that almost seems to stop, as if it's a little pathway actually, going back a kind of reflective pathway. Woman: There is a kind of intentionality here and a kind of formality that I think is very appealing in the 21st century. (piano music).