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The Baptism of Christ

1599 by Adam Elsheimer
The National Gallery

Looking deceptively impressive in size on a postcard, Elsheimer’s baptism is actually remarkably small. Painted on copper the image is tiny, hiding among the abundance of overbearingly larger-than-life paintings that litter the National Gallery’s walls. However, this makes the painting no less inviting to a passer-by, the dramatic light in this little painting commands the eye. The ethereal beams from above illuminate from their bright pillowy entrance, bathing those below in white light, reflecting in the faces of the figures that surround. The background of dark sky and shadowy forest glow luminously in this heavenly light, the edges of leaves and branches highlighted, tinged white, while the sky turns an incandescent indigo. The brilliance of this created atmosphere reflects the importance of the act in the eyes of the religious viewer – Christ is being baptised, draped in the regal red that is flown from the sky; he is being blessed to lead. One of the most intriguing elements of this painting is the shadowy figure in the foreground that kneels to the right of Jesus; unlit by the heavenly light, his persona is unknown, perhaps a figure stationed to represent the sinners that John would have usually been baptising. John originally refusing to bathe Jesus, stating that it was an act of absolution of sins and that Jesus had none. Jesus’ arms are spread open in acceptance, while John gently spills water over his head from an open palm, an act that caused the Heavens to open in turn.

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