Sunday, January 4, 2015

Mark 1.4-11: Which Way You Look at It

The baptism of Christ is either a private, a semi-private or public event depending on the gospel you read. The account in Mark's gospel (Mark 1:4-11) doesn't specify who might have heard the voice or seen the dove. Perhaps it was everyone. Perhaps it was no one beside Jesus - and one wonders how the gospel writer would have heard the story in order to include it. Public or private is just one of the dichotomies that apply to baptism in general and this story in particular. Individuals and communities of faith decide for themselves on the public and/or private nature of the Christian sacrament.

Another polarity that sheds light on baptism (in general and this story in particular) is that of orientation - is baptism horizontal or vertical? Some artists make this scene a sprawling landscape with people and cities and mountains, trees and birds and all manner of things. Annibale Carracci's version below is one of those. Jesus is at the center of the composition with John to the right (as we look at the picture). Large figures clothing and unclothing themselves in eye-catching bright white garments twist and turn at the left, pointing toward Jesus. At the right are other figures wandering into the picture space. Rocky outcroppings and silhouetted trees form both a background and a back drop.
Annibale Carracci. The Baptism of Christ. 1584. Oil on canvas. Bologna: San Gregorio.

With its slightly rectangular composition, the action feels horizontal, though the water is poured down onto Jesus' head. By contrast, the Tiffany studios window in the Baltimore Museum of Art is almost unreletingly vertical.
The Baptism of Christ (Tiffany Studio  on a design by Frank Brangwyn). 1899. Stained Glass. Baltimore Museum of Art.

The two men are constrained by the elongated shape of the window. From shoulder to elbow their arms are glued to their sides, though from Christ's hands come together in a prayer position and John's right hand is raised to pour water. The dove's rays add to the vertical emphasis of the work, and the bottom section with floral forms and a banner add length to the composition.

We can't assume that the choice of vertical-horizontal is a theological statement by the artist. Compositions can be dictated by the shape of the wall or window to be filled, by the wishes of the one commissioning the work, by the medium itself as well as other circumstances. However, we can ask theological questions implied by the orientation of these and other images of the baptism of Christ. How much of baptism is "horizontal" - human to human? How much of baptism is "vertical" - God to human? Does your artistic preference line up with your theological understanding?

This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page... a North African baptismal font and a quote from Tertullian.. Get a closer look by clicking here.

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