St Bride's: Sermon Series

Piero Della Francesca - The Baptism of Christ

Four years ago, after I had exchanged my Fellowship in Cambridge for a Vicarage in Blackheath and had given up University teaching for the pastoral round of a parish priest in South East London, I was interviewed by my bishop: ‘Still trying to convert people with Art?’ he asked quizzically.

I am delighted that in this diocese at least your church can have a series on Art throughout Lent and am very grateful for the invitation of Dr Meara to preach this morning. I am not sure that the Thames runs any deeper than the Tiber but given that I am safely outside the Woolwich Area let me say that I soundly answered the bishop, in the affirmative.

Now, all that is left for me to do today is to convince you of that. After all, the great Renaissance writer Leon Battista Alberti informs us that, ‘Painting has within it a divine power’.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

In the darkened, War torn days after the Battle of Britain, when these islands stood alone against the European menace with only the faithful support of the Empire, one man had a vision of how to bring a glimpse of glory to the people of London. Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery, decided to risk bringing back into the gallery one painting a month from hideouts across the nation. By popular request – a competition in a London evening paper here in Fleet Street– the choice fell on Titian’s great Noli me tangere, in which the Risen Lord greets the Magdalene at the dawn of a new age. A painting of Hope and a painting of new Life. It has always somewhat surprised me that the lot fell on Tiziano and not on Piero.

 

Della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ hangs now in its own room in the new Sainsbury Wing, a placement that would no doubt greatly please the late Lord Clark. Like the Titian it is a painting that is easily recognisable (or at least has become so since the Second World War with the spread of cheaper methods of reproduction, both in black and white and in colour) and is one which exercises its own ‘magic’ over all who come to see it.

 

Although it is not quite seen in isolation – it is set apart from the Saint Michael from the polyptych of the Augustinians and a poorly damaged Nativity, hung on the two side walls, and opposite two fragments from the cycle painted by Domenico Veneziano for the Carnesecchi tabernacle – the little chamber which it dominates feels sympathetically like a side chapel in a remote Tuscan church.

We are invited to come to worship. To worship not Piero della Francesca (who was born around 1415 and lived and worked in Borgo San Sepolcro and in Florence from the 1430s as well as, possibly, at Aix en Provence and in Rimini and perhaps most remarkably for the Franciscans in Arezzo, frescoes known to many before Minghella’s film of The English Patient re-situated the cycle.):Rather to worship God.

For it is the true aim of the artist to stand to one side to let the viewer see through and beyond the presenting picture. The divine power within a picture, of which Alberti wrote, surely is revealed only when the artist stands to one side? And although no artist can trap the Eternal in the present moment (much as we are reminded that somebody like Domenicos Theotocoplos very nearly does in his last great Adoration of the Shepherds, painted for his own mortuary chapel and currently down the road in Trafalgar Square) the Eternal breaks through if we will stand in silence and look, not just with our eyes but with our minds and hearts.

Of the painting of the Baptism of Christ itself much has been in dispute. A once popular recension of scholars convincingly argued that the picture alludes to the then recent Council of Florence that in 1439 had briefly, and importantly, forged a concordat between the Western and the Eastern Church, a short-lived salve for the centuries’ old rift that had breached Christendom since 1054 and which re-opened soon after the collapse of Constantinople in 1453. Such a ‘reading’ hinges on the gesture of the two angels closest to the Lord, watched by the third, the (?)Archangel, a seemingly superior angelic being. The angels immediately to the right of Jesus take hands in a classical gesture that is associated with Concordia and the Augustan tradition of peace.

The argument further suggested that the angels themselves, like the angels that appeared to Abraham, foreshadow the Trinity. Indeed the great reforming pope Innocent III had proposed that the colours of red, blue and white characterised the Trinity when he founded the Order of the Holy Trinity at the outset of the thirteenth century. And the angels certainly seem to bear those colours, aligned in a sequence that we might later find in our own Union flag of red, white and blue.

To support such a thesis scholars suggest that the outlandish headgear of the four priestly-like figures on the bank of the Jordan are representative of the Emperor John Paleologus VIII and his entourage, whose retinue of dignitaries was widely commented upon at the time of their arrival in Florence from Ferrara. Or they may just be Sadducees and Pharisees*.

But this presumes a lot on an unconventional hand shake – for notice that they shake left hands – of two angels in order to urge a much earlier date for the completion of the picture (around 1440 or soon after) than many others might suggest, especially if the style is to be dated after Piero’s visit to Rome, in 1458 – 59. Either way, we can leave much of that debate to Art Historians.

What concerns us this morning, as we meet on the First Sunday of Lent, when we come together committed to our path of Lenten discipline and already, no doubt, regretting the resolves that we undertook so readily (and so recently) at Ash Wednesday, whether to forgo chocolate and sugar, the red meats de nos jours, or to undertake a more ordered daily reading of Scripture or to find an extended time for our daily prayer (proper resolutions for a season of penance and preparation as we hungrily await the Paschal Mystery to bring us the fullness of God’s redemption in the Resurrection of His only Son our Lord and Saviour whom we gather here to adore in His Body and Blood offered once for us on the Cross;) what concerns us this morning is not what Piero della Francesca’s painting is all about but rather what it is not.

Look at it again. Carefully. Looked at superficially we see a more or less conventional scene of Jesus being baptised by John at the river Jordan. It mattereth not a lot that the composition was unusual in its day for picturing Jesus full frontal since in the Byzantine tradition the naked Christ stands, waist deep, in the waters of the river and faces the worshipper head on.

The river Jordan here has dried up at the feet of Christ. This follows a pious legend, reported for us by an English pilgrim in 1344 – 45 that the waters of the Jordan ceased to flow at the very moment of Jesus’ baptism. It is this inexplicable event that seems to alarm the scholarly crowd on the farther shore, dressed in Greek sacerdotal robes, but which is unnoticed by the young man who is stripping off his tunic ready to submit to the baptism of John. I would suggest that he perhaps represents the faithful Jewish people who came out in crowds to be baptised of John when he called them to repentance but who nonetheless could not see that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed of the Lord. In his eagerness to strip off, his sight is blinded in the folds of linen and his ears are muffled by the cloth.

Only ten figures inhabit the landscape and so far we have touched on them all; they fall into four distinct groupings.

The half naked Jesus, framed by John so carefully that neither John’s right arm, raised to pour water over his kinsman, nor his left invade this space or interrupt our view of the Son of God, who is the principal figure and rightly occupies centre stage, quite literally.

A little behind and beyond them, on the Rive Droite as it were, stand the three angelic messengers, in part shaded by the tree; and then the single figure of the catechumen, who somewhat casts no reflection in the standing waters of the Jordan, unlike the final group, of the four stately scholars, one of whom points into the heavens, an awkward gesture that must signify the apparition of the Holy Spirit. Traces of gold still survive on the panel and suggest divine rays above the dove. We are to be witnesses of a new Creation as the Son of God, in whom his Father is well pleased, stands revealed before us.

Four distinct groups and a bare landscape; even the road out to Borgo San Sepolcro in the foothills is deserted.

The observance of Lent, we might remind ourselves, was first undertaken by baptismal candidates for whom it was the final part of their preparation before initiation at the great Paschal Mystery. It was only, secondarily, a season of fasting when those who had been separated by sin from the body of the faithful awaited restoration to the full, sacramental fellowship of the Church, the Body of Christ.

Both themes find expression in this painting of Piero’s which is the most moving painting of Lenten preparation ever depicted. Aldous Huxley famously acclaimed another work of the same artist (The Resurrection in the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Borgo San Sepolcro) as ‘the greatest picture in the world’ even though he admitted that,

The expression is ludicrous, of course. Nothing is more futile than the occupation of those connoisseurs who spend their time compiling first and second elevens of the world’s best painters, eights and fours of musicians, fifteens of poets, all-star troupes of architects and so on. Nothing is so futile because there are a great many kinds of merit and an infinite variety of human beings.

If Huxley is even half right (and the Archbishop of Canterbury seemingly shared his choice in his essay for the recent exhibition in St Paul’s Cathedral, PRESENCE) then I am more than happy to claim that the Baptism of Christ is the finest painting for Lent.

The picture is at unity with itself since, by traditional iconography, the angels accompanied the epiphany of the Son of God at his baptism, offering Jesus the vestments for his new life that begins with forty days in the desert. The angel at our Lord’s right hand is robed in violet (It is properly violet and not a British blue) the colour of the Passion. That angel also wears the martyr’s crown, reminding us that there is no Crown without the Cross.

Furthermore this angel has, draped over his left shoulder, the new vestment, a pink robe, which the newly baptised Jesus will wear. Just as at baptisms today the newly baptised is symbolically clothed in a new robe (and in Bishop Stancliffe’s wordy liturgy for Common Worship this clothing is all but compulsory as it is in the Catholic tradition) so Jesus of Nazareth dies to be reborn and re-clothed at baptism. The stony dry riverbed on which he now stands is the threshold of a new life, a life that begins with penance and penitence in the desert wilderness.

The Gospel narrative is so often broken up for us at the Mass that we can all too readily, and unhappily, lose sight of the integrity of the original text. The newly baptised Jesus goes straightway into the desert so the two events in our Lord’s life that we separate liturgically – The Baptism of the Lord that we keep on the first Sunday of Epiphany and the Forty Days of Lent that we begin at Ash Wednesday – are a single unified narrative (even if Luke’s revisers have interpolated the generations that come between Jesus and Adam in a genealogical table that is never read in the Public Worship of the Church). Our own baptism is, therefore, not only the prelude to a period of penitence and of wandering in the desert but is to be seen in the context of the ‘Wilderness experience’ in which we learn to listen to God.

If such a representation lies at the heart of Piero’s great painting then it begins to make sense for us of the river Jordan. The ancient people of God’s first choosing wandered for forty years in the wilderness with Moses before crossing the Jordan only after he had died. So Jesus comes to the Jordan and once the old man in him has died at baptism the new Man, Jesus the Messiah, steps out of the river, across the Jordan into the same wilderness from which the Jews had come. In this way Jesus bar Joseph is not only recovering his ancient heritage but is doing so as the second Adam, the newly baptised Son of God who will not be trapped by the challenges of the wild (the taunting of Moses by the Israelites is reflected in the Temptations in the Wilderness) but who will return and cross the Jordan to bring us to the Father’s kingdom when by death he passes from this world into the new Kingdom where he now reigns, with the Father and the Spirit, to whom be all glory, majesty, honour and power, now and always. Amen.

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