Angels in the Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca

In most religions, images play a crucial role in creating the experience of the sacred.

Images express and at the same time shape different ways of understanding the supernatural in different cultures and at different time (Burke, 2002). Through images, instruments of indoctrination, objects of worship, stimuli for meditation and weapons in controversies, the historian can reconstruct religious experiences of the past provided, of course, that he is able to interpret the iconography.

Sacred images also have a documentary function: they offer visual evidence of religious feeling in a given place and time.

Possessing certain religious notions is a rather obvious prerequisite for understanding the meaning of sacred images, all the more so if they come from cultures distant from us in time and space. In the sixteenth century, Europeans visiting India sometimes perceived images of Indian deities as demons.

This tendency to regard non-Christian religions as diabolical was reinforced by the fact that these many-armed or animal-headed ‘monsters’ broke with Western iconographic patterns of depicting the divine. After all, as Erwin Panofsky has pointed out, it is likely that an Australian Aborigine would see the Last Supper as nothing more than a group of people around a table arguing over money (Panofsky, 1999).

Iconography was especially important in past eras because images were means of “indoctrination”, in the literal sense of the word, of transmitting religious doctrine. Pope Gregory the Great’s remarks on the subject have been quoted countless times over the centuries:

«Images are placed in churches so that those who cannot read in books can “read” on the walls».

Both the iconography and the doctrines it illustrated could be explained orally by the clergy and the image, rather than an independent source, was a reminder and reinforcement of the message entrusted to the Word. 

Sacred images also have a documentary function, i.e. they offer visual evidence of religious sentiment in a given place and time. The discrepancies between the stories told by the images and those told in the Bible are particularly interesting clues to understanding how Christianity was viewed by Christians themselves and how it evolved.

This is why, for example, especially from the fourteenth century onwards, the few references to magicians and their gifts and the birth of Christ in a manger in Matthew’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel respectively, were amplified and made more vivid by countless visual representations of the ox and the donkey and of the Three Wise Men Gaspar, Balthasar and Melchior.

From an iconological point of view, stylistic changes in sacred images were also a testimony of enormous importance for historians. Figures intended to arouse emotions can be used to document the history of those emotions, they can suggest, for example, the existence in the late Middle Ages of a particular interest in pain.

It was at this time that the cult of the instruments of the Passion – the nails, the lance – reached its peak, and it was also at this time that the figure of the suffering, twisted and tormented Christ replaced the traditionally serene and dignified image of Christ ‘reigning from the tree’, as they used to say in the Middle Ages, on crucifixes.

Sacred art is undoubtedly the visual media par excellence for supporting homiletics.

But there are cases, which we could consider as false friends, that in spite of their apparent familiarity and ease of interpretation, turn out to be more distant and cryptic than we could have imagined. We have taken Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ as an example (Fig. 1), with particular attention to the group of three angels, with the aim of demonstrating how a gaze more than five hundred years distant, albeit at a central and well-known event in Christian and Western culture, can be so opaque to its correct discernment.

Piero della Francesca The Baptism of Christ 1440-1460
Fig. 1 – Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ, 1440-1460.

The Baptism of Piero della Francesca []

Baptism is one of the most recognisable and frequent images in Christian art, substantially linked to a fixed scheme with very few variations, mainly due to the brevity of the story in the canonical Gospels. Despite this, in Piero della Francesca’s work we are faced with a long series of critical interpretations, with alternating fortunes, which over the years have attempted to shed light not only on the overall function of the work but also on the individual subjects and objects painted as in the original intentions of the artist and his patron, also in relation to the public of central Italy in the 15th century.

Piero’s Baptism is undoubtedly a clear, touching, unforgettable, sacramental and ennobling representation of the subject. It is the central panel, 167 cm high, of an altarpiece, now disappeared, painted for the prior of the church of San Giovanni Battista in Borgo San Sepolcro, around 1450.

Piero chose to represent the two central moments of the event: the moment in which Jesus Christ receives the water from Saint John and the divine epiphany, perfectly aligned in the centre with Christ and the dove. The central position of Jesus follows the dominant scheme in the 14th and 15th centuries (as in Lorenzo Ghiberti and Andrea Pisano): to the right of Christ, where the angels are present, is Paradise, while to his left are men and earthly events, with Christ present in both realms.

However, it is evidently not the similarities to tradition that triggered the critics’ interest in this work, but rather the innovative elements introduced by Piero. As observed by Marie Tanner, Piero differs in at least three main elements: a) in the background, to the left of Christ and behind Saint John, there is a group of four men dressed in oriental costumes, one of them gesturing towards the sky, from where divine rays appear; b) the background landscape is contemporary and represents Borgo San Sepolcro and not the banks of the Jordan.

But, above all, c) the angels do not perform their usual function of holding the garments from which Christ undresses in order to plunge into the river and receive the Sacrament: in fact, the two angels hold hands while the third points out the main event to the viewer (Tanner, 1972). Each angel is also distinguished by a different hairstyle and different coloured clothing, to which we will return.

The role of angels []

The three angels were described by Roberto Longhi as «three teenagers with wings» (Longhi, 1946), while according to Charles De Tolnay, angels would be «les Trois Grâces antiques, habillées en Anges chrétiens et exprimant, comme les Grâces l’expriment, l’harmonie» (De Tolnay, 1963), despite the fact that the Graces are women while the angels, being asexual, have always been represented with male features.

The resemblance to the Graces is remarkable, but to find a variant dressed like this one by Piero, one has to go back to Leon Battista Alberti’s De pictura – which in turn was inspired by a literary contamination between Seneca’s De beneficiis and St Thomas’s Summa – which would have constituted a reference to the iconography of the city; De beneficiis by Seneca and the Summa of St. Thomas – which would constitute the iconographic reference at least until the advent of Canova’s group. In this version the emphasis is on the gesture of giving, interpreted as a benefit given and at the same time received.

«Piacerebbe ancora vedere quelle tre sorelle a quali Esiodo pose nome Eglie, Heufronesis e Thalia, quali si dipingeano prese fra loro l’una l’altra per mano, ridendo, con la vesta scinta e ben monda per quali volea s’intendesse la liberalità, ché una di queste sorelle dà, l’altra riceve, la terza rende il benificio: quali gradi debbano in ogni perfetta liberalità essere» (De pictura III, 54).

However, the inclusion of angels may not be due to Piero’s moralistic attitude, but rather to a stringent and pragmatic commercial necessity, linked to the relationship between the artist and his client: in fact, the client, perhaps a rich merchant, may have wished to defend himself against accusations of usury with this work, christianising his own artistic patronage with this elegant classical motif.

Angels, being the lowest of the nine orders of celestial entities, represent the point of contact between humanity and God.

Morally ambiguous creatures, they symbolise the relationship between rebellion and the acquisition of consciousness of which the “light bearer” Lucifer is the synthesis. In Genesis (6:2), the angels, «sons of God» seduce women by generating destructive giants, while in the book of Enoch they teach mankind the secrets of agriculture, metallurgy, astrology and goldsmithing. In general, angels stimulate our sense of mercy and are a source of intellectual inspiration, which is why they take on symbolically young and beautiful human forms in our presence, especially during prayer.

They invite us to prayer by their actions, indicating to us, with direct gestures, the object of our devotion, or reminding us of some particular aspect of a given mystery, sometimes (in the most extreme cases) with the help of the text of a scroll.

Angel derives from the Greek angelos, “he who announces”: his role is in fact that of a messenger.

He approaches man through dreams and visions, manifesting himself as a voice or as a celestial choir, in human or animal form, as a star, a cloud or fire. The encounter with an angel «opens the door to the perception of the divine, a call to a religious and creative awakening» (Ronnberg, 2010).

Angels are a constant in the representations of Christ’s baptism, although their presence is not mentioned in either the canonical or the apocryphal Gospels. The main points of the narrative are: John came to the Jordan, wearing a robe of camel’s hair and a leather belt, the people came and some were baptised; John, however, rebuffed the Pharisees with a remark about cutting down some unfruitful trees and burning their wood; he also spoke of someone much more powerful than him who would come later, and indeed Christ came, who insisted that John baptise him; God sent the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and expressed his pleasure (cfr. Matteo, 3).

Thomas Aquinas pointed out that angels act as deacons during the sacrament, performing an assisting function by holding up the white robes of the catechumen (Daniélou, 1957). The fact that this function is not found in Piero indicates that the meaning of the angels’ presence had somehow changed. 

As confirmed in the Confessions by St Ambrose, the function of the angels could be to represent the Trinity, an iconography that was consolidated with the appearance of three angels to Abraham: «Deus illi apparuit, et tres aspexit. Cui Deus refulgit, Trinitatem videt» (Genesi 18, 1-3). Andrei Rublev himself, an oriental contemporary of Piero della Francesca, illustrates this episode in his famous Trinity by isolating a group of angels in such a way as to express unity, multiplicity and equality (Fig. 2).

According to historiographic tradition, God the Father is depicted on the left, Jesus Christ in the centre and the Holy Spirit on the right. The chalice in the centre of the painting, also recalled by the outline of the three figures, is a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice.

Piero might have followed this tradition and adopted the colours of the angels’ robes, red, blue and white, according to the symbolism suggested by Innocent III in 1198, when the order of the Trinitarians was founded. Piero’s and Rublev’s focus on the Trinity may have been triggered by contemporary historical events: in 1439, the dispute over the so-called Philioque clause, a Latin addition to the Creed – contested by the Orthodox Church – which decreed the procession of the Holy Spirit from both the Father and the Son, was temporarily closed.

Andrej Rublëv Trinity 1420-1430
Fig. 2 – Andrej Rublëv, Trinity, 1420-1430.

Looking at the different hairstyles one can see that one angel, the one on the left, is wearing a diadem while the other two are wearing garlands, one of roses and one of laurel. Angels do not normally wear garlands, which are usually reserved for martyrs. According to Tanner, the angel in the centre with the crown of roses could be Christ, with a sort of crown of thorns in bloom – with all the symbolic significance that this implies – while the angel with the laurel, a plant symbolising – among other things – glory, could represent God the Father.

The two angels with the garland also hold hands in a gesture reminiscent of Concordia. In Roman imperial art, Concordia was often personified by a third person in a group in which the other two held hands. The hypothesis is fragile, but it is difficult to discard it completely due to the pregnant fascination for classicism present in Piero’s work.

In the angels, the reference to Greek sculpture is evident: the choice of colours and the suspension of gestures seem to be taken directly from ancient statuary: sort of monolithic blocks, barely sketched in stone (Battisti, 1992).

However, the influence may not date back so far, and may even be coeval with Piero. In 1439, in fact, he was working in Florence as Domenico Veneziano’s assistant, and in that same year, still in Florence, Donatello finished his great Cantoria, with that extraordinary frieze of dancing and singing angels. Some of them wear garlands and a draped robe, which, as in the Borgo San Sepolcro altarpiece, leaves one shoulder uncovered.

The Cantoria was one of the greatest public works of the 1530s and became a kind of reference text from which to draw models of angels in intense movement. His contact with Donatello, at a time when he was researching the diversification of angels in groups, disrupted Piero della Francesca’s usual conception of angels, which would have given rise to angels echoing in some way those in the Cantoria.

Doctrine of the three baptisms []

UAnother key to trying to understand the profound meaning of the three angels lies in a simple homiletic reference to the doctrine of the three baptisms, an absolutely central issue in the fifteenth century. In order to understand it, it is sufficient to know the Summa teologica of St Antoninus of Florence, in particular the sermon on the baptism of Christ (Baxandall, 2000).

The doctrine of the three baptisms arose in connection with the following problem: if those who are not baptised are damned, those who do not deserve it – for example, unbaptised martyrs – will also be excluded from purgatory and condemned to eternal punishment. It was therefore argued that there were two baptisms in addition to water baptism: the baptism of blood (baptismus sanguinis) granted to those who died for Christ, and the baptism of the Spirit (baptismus flaminis).

This meant, however, that if remission of sins could be obtained without actively undergoing the actual sacrament of water baptism (baptismus fluminis), believers might no longer feel the urge to baptize themselves or their children. Consequently, it was specified that, unlike the other two, water baptism retained superiority over the others in that it not only purified from original sin but also gave the soul a general inclination to good.

This would explain the angels in the altarpiece: each angel is Spirit.

The one on the right is wearing the martyr’s laurel wreath and the one in the centre is dressed as Christ (but also as the man being undressed) because he is about to follow his example by undergoing baptism. 

In addition to the above, the angels with joined hands have been considered a symbol of the Trinity, a reference to Christ’s marriage to the Church and a reference to the decree of union between the Eastern and Western Churches signed after the Council of Florence in 1438-39.

Some of the most important art critics of the second half of the twentieth century have taken turns in interpreting these events, and their thoughts have been reported here, albeit briefly. The result, however, is nothing but an impasse between proposals that are certainly plausible and fascinating, and there is nothing left to do but choose one from among them all or move in search of an interstitial truth or even explore new paths.

The exploration of a minimal formal analysis of the three figures, which could perhaps enrich us with further nuances of meaning, remains pending. Baxandall observes that the painting’s fundamental problem is the encounter between Piero’s specific language and pictorial tradition in a relatively large vertical panel like this one.

This was a difficult task, since Piero’s angels are always statuesque adolescents, almost adult-sized: the risk was that three figures thus conceived would have totally taken over the painting and, on the other hand, it was impossible to push them to the bottom without weakening their function as a chorus.

Hence the decision to build a very intimate group and to use the tree to create a sort of side niche to accommodate them, while another tree behind them could recall the foliage or drapery that used to decorate the niches.

Adolfo Venturi had discovered similarities between Piero della Francesca’s Baptism and the same subject painted by Masolino in Castiglione Olona: in the angels, in the man undressing, in the dignity of the naked figures. Christ also seems to have the same age, proportions and elegance as the Adam in the Brancacci Chapel, while «the faces of the angels, so delicately luminous as to seem transparent, retain a physical depth in which life seems both present and absent» (Focillon, 2004).

No disquiet haunts these high-fronted, simple-thinking characters, as if they were the harbingers of an intuitive, immediate meaning beyond doubt. Perhaps this was true for their contemporaries but certainly not for us, who persist in trudging uncertainly behind evanescent traces.

Finally, we can observe how much the humanity in Piero’s angels is opposite to the torments experienced in his time: they seem calm, heavy, immobile, eternal. Almost indifferent and superior to human suffering, the three angels stand there, as close as they are apart, «the most attractive figures Piero ever painted; but one cannot be sure that any of them participate in the scene» (Berenson, 2007).

[Originally published in Meneghetti Carlo, Elementi di teologia della comunicazione, Padova: Libreria Universitaria, 2015, pp. 222-229]

Bibliography []

  • Battisti Eugenio, Piero della Francesca, Milano: Electa, 1992, p. 88.
  • Baxandall Michael, Forme dell’intenzione, Torino: Einaudi, 2000, p. 178-179.
  • Berenson Bernard, Piero della Francesca, o dell’arte non eloquente, Milano: Abscondita, 2007, p. 13.
  • Burke Peter, Testimoni oculari. Il significato storico delle immagini, Roma: Carocci, 2002.
  • Daniélou Jean, The Angels and their Mission, New York: ET, 1957, p. 59 n. 17.
  • De Tolnay Charles, Conception religieuses dans la peinture de Piero della Francesca, «Arte antica e moderna», XXII, 1963, pp. 9-11.
  • Focillon Henri, Piero della Francesca, Milano: Abscondita, 2004, p. 21.
  • Longhi Roberto, Piero della Francesca: con 207 tavole, Milano: Hoepli, 1946, p. 31.
  • Panofsky Erwin, Iconografia e iconologia. Introduzione allo studio dell’arte del Rinascimento, Id., «Il significato delle arti visive», Torino: Einaudi, 1999, pp. 31-57.
  • Ronnberg Ami, Il libro dei simboli. Riflessioni sulle immagini archetipiche, Colonia: Taschen, 2010, p. 680-683.
  • Tanner Marie, Concordia in Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ, «The Art Quarterly», vol. XXV, n. 1, 1972, pp. 1-20.