‘I find the colours and the drawing of the Italian landscape inspirational and each time I stand and contemplate this painting, I discover something new about it.’

Baptism of Christ, 1450 (egg tempera on panel)

The Baptism of Christ, about 1436–39, by Piero della Francesca (1415/20–92), 66in by 46in, The National Gallery, London.

Lady Sarah Chatto chooses The Baptism of Christ

‘This painting by Piero della Francesca is in the National Gallery in London and I always go and look at it when I’m there.

‘I love the progression of drawing, from the pebbles and plants in the foreground to the figures and then to the tree-covered hills and the town beyond.

‘I find the colours and the drawing of the Italian landscape inspirational and each time I stand and contemplate this painting, I discover something new about it.’

Lady Sarah Chatto is a painter and vice president of the Royal Drawing School

John McEwen on The Baptism of Christ

Lady Sarah Chatto clearly agrees with the 20th-century master Giorgio Morandi, who said that Piero is one of those early Renaissance masters who ‘can still teach a lot to a modern painter’.

The Baptism is considered to be his earliest masterpiece. It originally formed the centre of a multi-part altarpiece in the little church of San Giovanni d’Afra at his (distantly visible) hometown, Borgo San Sepolcro in Tuscany. Side panels and predella base (since detached) were added by another artist.

John was understandably hesitant to baptise Jesus, knowing his relative to be the Messiah: ‘And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness’ and ‘lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove’ (Matthew 3: 14–16).

Christian theology came later. This picture celebrated the religious concord between the Western (Roman) and Eastern (Byzantine) Churches that was ratified by the 1439 Coun-cil of Florence. A key agreement concerned the doctrine of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) – that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both. Hence the hand-holding angels in Trinitarian colours (red, white, blue) and the group of Byzantine priests.

The walnut tree is the largest feature. It was sacred in the history of San Sepolcro and also foreshadows Jesus’s Crucifixion. Craigie Aitchison (1926–2009), most associated with Crucifixion pictures among contemporary painters and an admirer of Piero, especially praised the beauty of the walnut leaves.


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