NOTES ON ANDREA DEL VERROCCHIO’S BAPTISM OF CHRIST
The Baptism of Christ is attributed to Andrea del Verrocchio and partly to a young Leonardo da Vinci who worked in Verrecchio’s studio at the time when the painting was produced around 1475. It depicts Jesus being baptised in the Jordan by John the Baptist. Two young angels kneel on the bank of the river, one holding Christ’s garments. It was said by Francesco Alberti in a guidebook published in 1510 that this figure was painted by Leonardo. Some art historians suggest that he had a hand in other parts of the painting, notably the background scene and perhaps even the figure of Christ
According to the art historian, painter and architect Georgio Vasari: “Leonardo painted an angel who was holding some garments; and despite his youth, he executed it in such a manner that his angel was far better than the figures painted by Verrocchio. This was the reason why Andrea would never touch colours again, he was so ashamed that a boy understood their use better than he did.”
Perhaps an exaggeration by Vasari who was born in 1511, forty years after the painting was completed and never spoke with Verrochio who died in 1488.
What Vasari failed to record and may not have noticed about the painting is that the Baptist figure is modelled on Leonardo, and whose angel rendition is another image of himself. Verrichio knew this but seemingly not Vasari.
Verrocchio also knew the painting was linked to another artist, the sculptor Donatello and the two statues he made of the biblical David, one in marble and the other bronze. Verrocchio also produced a bronze of David which links to this painting as well as his bronze of Christ and Thomas.
Bottecilli also refers to the Baptism of Christ painting in his Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. He also recognised the ‘hidden’ hand of Leonardo in Verrochio’s Baptism of Christ – and the shoulder injury he sustained probably in childhood – a ‘fallen angel’, so to speak, nursing a broken wing and uncertain if he would ever resurrect and ‘fly’ to rise above the earth again.
ANGELS OF LIGHT
The two young boys featured in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ are usually described as angels – but in this instance are shown without wings. They have halos, so are they angels or saints? The halos over the two other figures in the painting, Christ and John the Baptist, differ in colour, and the Saviour’s halo is marked with a cross.
Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat (1481) also features angels without wings. Two of his ‘angels’ are arranged to mirror those in the Verrocchio painting. He repeated the motif in his Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi.
Is there a connection between the three groups? Probably, and likely to be Leonardo da Vinci. It is said to he painted the angel on the left in Verrocchio’s panel produced in 1475 for the Vallomvrosan monastery of St Salvi in Florence.
In the Magnificat, some historians have suggested that the two angels are meant to represent the Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano, while in the Adoration scene the two men placed left and right of the group are Giuliano de’ Medici and Leonardo.
The Baptism painting also connects to the Florence Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, where Giuliano de’ Medici was murdered in April 1478. Botticelli makes reference to both the assassination and Verrocchio’s painting in the Uffizi Adoration. The gold-brimmed hat (right) refers to the halo theme and its iconography in the Baptism of Christ.
Andrea del Verroccio is probably better known for his work as a sculptor than a painter. Even the two principal figures in his Baptism of Christ painting appear rigid as if placed on pedestals. Both Christ and John the Baptist are shown standing on the bedrock of the shallow river Jordan with their feet submerged in water. The weight of each man is placed on his right leg and balanced by the left. The feet are the ‘footings’ or ‘founds’ supporting the whole body which in this scenario can be understood as Christ’s body representing the Church he founded.
I mentioned in a previous post how the river is depicted as both water and blood and is connected to the Massacre of the Innocents carried out by King Herod, and also the later beheading of John the Baptist. But there are also two other events which link to the blood and water theme: (1) the rite of Baptism in the Christian Church, seen as participation in the death and resurrection of Christ; and (2) when Jesus was pierced with a lance at his crucifixion and the wound was seen to pour out blood and water.
His pierced side was later witnessed by Thomas, one of the disciples who had doubted Christ’s resurrection. When Jesus later appeared to him he invited Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and feet and telling him, “Give me you hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.”
Before he painted the Baptism of Christ, Verrocchio was commissioned in 1467 by the Merchant’s Guild in Florence to produce a bronze sculpture depicting Christ and St Thomas. This bronze and the niche it was placed in on an exterior wall of the Orsanmichel was the main source of inspiration for Verrocchio when he came to outlining his composition for the Baptism painting completed in 1475. Work on the bronze sculpture very ikely took a back seat at times as it was not unveiled and in situ until 1483.
The niche, or tabernacle, where Christ and St Thomas was displayed (it still is, but a copy), was previously occupied by Donatello’s gilded bronze sculpture of St Louis of Toulouse, completed in 1425. However, in 1459 the niche was sold to the Merchant’s Guild and Verrochio was commissioned to fill the gap with his bronze. The niche itself is said to have been sculpted by Donatello. Verrochio paid tribute to his former master by referencing some its features for his Baptism of Christ, as well as linking his painting to a legend attributed to St Louis.
The stance of Christ and St Thomas in the bronze commissioned by the Merchant’s Guild echoes the two standing figures in the Baptism painting. Donatello’s predella supporting the tabenacle area features two winged-angels carrying a wreath crown. These are the two ‘angels’ portrayed by Verrocchio. One carrying Christ’s garments and kneeling on the rock shelf by the waterside.
The two heads looking out at the ends of the predella, facing right and left, are the two heads in the rock outcrop in the painting – one is King Herod, the other Goliath. It’s likely the heads featured on the predalla may refer to Greek or Roman philosophers.
Centred on Donatello’s triangular pediment are three heads encircled within a winged olive crown. They represent the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is also referenced in Verrochio’s painting and is an integral part of the Baptism of Christ account in John’s Gospel. The Father’s two hands are seen extending from Heaven, while the Spirit is coming down from heaven like a dove to rest on Jesus.
The frieze below the pediment is a twist bracelet of four winged-cherubs. The four heads represent four identities Verrocchio has linked to the face of the baptised Christ.
The spiralled columns inside the tabernacle and their Ionic capitals are the inspiration for the palm tree and its crown on the left of the painting, matched on the other side by the Baptist’s shaft crowned with a golden cross.
The scalloped ceiling inside the dome of the tabenacle is represented by the dish used by the Baptist to pour water over Christ’s head. The patterned scallop is echoed by the arrowed rays emanating from Heaven.
Either side of the dome are two angels with an arm reaching out along the arch, in a manner similar to the portrayal of John the Baptist reaching out over the head of Jesus. This is also reflected in the actual sculpture with Jesus’ right hand outstretched over Thomas and blessing the doubting disciple.
As far as matching Thomas touching the side wound of Jesus, this is shown in the kneeling figure of the angel said to have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Here Leonardo is drawing attention to the shoulder wound he apparently carried throughout his life (represented by him carrying the robe worn by Jesus – or even a shroud – and so referring to the death and resurrection aspect of baptism). The cloth can also be related to as a wing, and therefore pointing again to Leonardo’s damaged shoulder and his fascination for birds and for flying. This is another feature referenced in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi where Lorenzo de Medici is seen carrying the wrap of his light blue gown over his right forearm. It was this that protected him from a more serious injury during the attack in the Duomo on himself and his brother Giuliano who was not so fortunate and died during the assassination attempt.
• More to follow…
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