Whilst working within the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio, the young Da Vinci would learn a great number of disciplines and also take on different artistic genres, such as portrait, religious themes and landscape painting. This time as an apprentice shaped his interest in the full breadth of ideas that were available to him, and ensured that he would continue to be artistically curious throughout his career. Even at this early stage, we can see different genres fused together within The Baptism of Christ, even though the artist was still very much learning his craft at this point.

Leonardo da Vinci's career has been studied in huge detail over the centuries, perhaps as much as anyone's in history, yet still there are many questionmarks that remain. In terms of the artwork in front of us here, it is generally accepted as having been worked on by multiple artists, but debates still continue about who worked on which elements of the scene. It is only later in Da Vinci's career that we can truly distinguish between his own creative ideas, and the influences that were placed upon him during his time as an apprentice. In the early 1470s he was still yet to truly emerge from his teachings, and yet to fully evolve as an artist.

The artist joined the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio at the age of fourteen, and at the time his master was considered the most accomplished painter and sculptor in Florence. Indeed, the budding artist had only recently moved to the city, and was excited by the new opportunities that would now present themselves. By the time that he worked on The Baptism of Christ, the artist would have been promoted to apprentice and was nearing the end of his time within the studio. He would have mastered the basic skills for a number of disciplines by this point, and the rest of his evolution could be completed as an independent artist.

The Renaissance era is remembered for how skills and knowledge was passed down generations via art studios and schools. The example in front of us here started with the great Donatello, leading onto his pupil Verrocchio and then on again to Leonardo da Vinci. Indeed, some argued that Verrocchio was so impressed by his young pupil's painting techniques that he decided to concentrate more on sculpture from that point onwards. Whilst Da Vinci may have surpassed his master, the influence and training that he received was still critical in helping him to find the right path for his own career. It also opened his eyes as to the benefits of broadening your oeuvre, rather than specialising in a single discipline or even genre.

Table of Contents

  1. Background
  2. Commission
  3. Preparation
  4. What is the Baptism of Christ?
  5. Description
  6. What did Leonardo contribute to the Baptism of Christ?
  7. What is written on John the Baptist's scroll?
  8. Size and Medium
  9. Location
  10. Date and Timeline
  11. Large Image of The Baptism of Christ
  12. References

Background

The city of Florence in the 15th century contained a wealth of artistic influences, covering painting, sculpture and architecture. Da Vinci's family decided to move here whilst he was a teenager and this proved a crucial decision in enabling the young man to maximise his potential. He would soon come into contact with work by the likes of Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Masaccio, as well as a number of similarly aged artists who developed at around the same time as Leonardo and brought other ideas to the table. All of these influences would be fused together alongside his own innovations but this process took several decades, and The Baptism of Christ came right at the start of this evolution.

This artwork was begun in 1472 and the artist switched to his own studio in the same year. He was still loyal to his old master, though, and it would take several more years before he would break away entirely. They would therefore work collaboratively on this artwork, and its development lasted several years. The original commission was organised by master Verrocchio's brother, which may also explain why this work was completed in such a partnership, though Verrocchio himself realised his true expertise actually lied more in sculpture. Combining artists from different generations also explains why some elements were in tempera, with others in oil.

Commission

Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio both had family members who were involved with religious institutions as part of their own careers. It was Verrocchio's brother, Don Simone, who was integral to this particular commission. He is believed by some experts at the time to have served in the monastic Church of San Salvi and managed to acquire this commission for his brother, Andrea, and pupil, Leonardo. Sadly, there is little other information available on this, with no contracts of work or other documentation surviving to the present day which might have shed more light on their agreement.

Preparation

There are no preparatory studies that exist for this painting, either by Verrocchio or his student, Da Vinci. It is likely that several would have been completed at the time, based on their normal working practises, but such items were rarely treated with great care, leading to them becoming lost or damaged. There are some sketches on the back of the poplar panel itself, but these are not believed to have been related to the painting on the opposing side. Da Vinci himself liked to sketch out ideas in charcoal or chalk, and paid particular attention to figurative art, where any errors would be immediately obvious. Without these resources to hand for Baptism of Christ, experts have instead focused on the early stages of the painting itself, where the key forms were laid out in a stage known as underpainting.

What is the Baptism of Christ?

The Baptism of Jesus Christ is featured in the Bible gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The ceremony is carried out by John the Baptist, who is typically featured within any artistic interpretations of this key moment in the story of Christianity. This moment is also one of the few within the Bible that is almost entirely regarded as fact by historians, with his crucifixion being the other. It also features across the different strands of Christianity, though their various interpretations have inevitably varied somewhat over time, though the main elements of this event remain much the same.

The baptism is believed by historians to have occurred in Al-Maghtas, which lies in modern-day Jordan. The locations for many events from the life of Jesus Christ have been discovered over the centuries that have passed since, and they continue to draw large crowds of followers even today, for those looking to increase their personal and spiritual connection to this iconic figure of the past.

Description

The composition features Jesus Christ centrally placed, with a golden halo floating just above his head. He holds his hands together in prayer, with his eyes shut and his head facing towards the ground. He reflects internally and in deep concentration as John the Baptist performs the brief ceremony. Jesus wears just a small cloth around his waist for his modesty, and is otherwise naked. This presents him as vulnerable, but also committed to the baptism itself. He is also bare-footed in a rocky, wet environment, suggesting sacrifice and a humble nature.

John the Baptist pours water over Christ's head within this scene, whilst holding a cross on a staff in his other hand. He is dressed in simple robes, and also has a similarly glowing halo above his own head. His body is slim, perhaps even gaunt, and just like Jesus his feet are placed into a shallow section of the Jordan river. There are then two angels to our left hand side, kneeling to the side of the river. The layout then leads away to a rocky landscape across the background with trees on either side that help to frame the overall compoosition. There is also the symbolic appearance of the hands of God, as heaven opens, plus also a dove helping to release light onto Jesus.

What did Leonardo contribute to the Baptism of Christ?

Considerable scientific and technical study was required in order to determine which artist produced which parts of this painting. It is generally accepted that Andrea del Verrocchio produced the majority of this painting, and that he initiated the piece in the very early 1470s. All of the underpainting, which can still be seen from X-Ray technology, can from his very hand. He worked entirely in tempera for this artwork, where as Leonardo was combining tempera and oils in his work at this point.

Leonardo da Vinci's contribution to the Baptism of Christ remains a topic of discussion, with the general concensus being that he certainly completed one of the two angels that sits to the left hand side. Many also believe that he reworked elements of the existing figures, such as Christ in the centre. He went over his master's tempera forms with oils and left Verrocchio in such awe of his work that the master chose to specialise only in sculpture from that point onwards. Da Vinci also reworked elements of the background as well, and so his overall contribution was certainly considerable enough to warrant including it within his oeuvre.

What is written on John the Baptist's scroll?

Whilst baptising Christ, John holds a scroll in his left hand, along with a staff which runs along his arm, with a cross inserted at the top. The scroll itself contains a passage from John 1:29, "ECCE AGNUS DEI QUI TOLLIT PECCATA MUNDI". This roughly translates as meaning, "...Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world". The artist chose to curl the scroll, meaning that only the first two words of this passage are visible within the painting, but it can be reliably assumed that this is the passage that was being referred to.

Size and Medium

The Baptism of Christ is sized at 177 cm by 151 cm. It was produced using a combinataion of tempera and oil on a panel of poplar wood, with Da Vinci likely to have used oils for his own contributions.

Renaissance Italy was relatively new to the use of oils at this time, having taken the idea of North European artists of the previous century. Over time it would become more and more prevalent, eventually becoming the dominant medium for most major artists, with tempera, that is derived from egg yolk, falling out of favour. It was artists from the low lands, such as Jan van Eyck, who originally perfected the techniques of oil painting, though Italians such as Da Vinci were able to bring new ideas to the medium in the centuries that followed.

Location

The Baptism of Christ can be found in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. The venue is known locally as the Galleria degli Uffizi and is one of the most respected art galleries in the world, particularly with regards the Italian Renaissance era. The Uffizi hold several other items from Da Vinci's career, including The Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi, as well as other notable pieces such as Paolo Uccello's The Battle of San Romano, Giotto's Ognissanti Madonna and Duccio's Rucellai Madonna.

The Baptism of Christ entered the Uffizi in 1919, having previously been on display in the Florentine Galleries throughout the 19th century. Up to that point it had passed through several different monasteries within the Florentine district. It could first be found at the Vallombrose church of San Salvi, before being moved to the convent of Santa Verdiana, 1564. Onwards it went once more to the Accademia di Belle Arti (1810) and then onto the world-famous Uffizi, where it resides today.

Date and Timeline

Work on The Baptism of Christ came very early on in the professional career of Leonardo da Vinci. He had only recently set up his own studio, and was still working very closely with his master, Verrocchio. Madonna of the Carnation and The Annunciation came from around the same period, all begun at some point between the years of 1472 and 1474. Religious themes dominated his oeuvre up until the following decade, at which point Da Vinci started to take on commissions for single portraits. We therefore see the evolution of the artist in paintings such as The Baptism of Christ, from an apprentice in a respected studio to an independent, confident artist who was starting to take ownership of their life and career.

Large Image of The Baptism of Christ

The original painting is over one and a half metres in width and height, making it difficult to get across the true beauty of this artwork with a small image. Therefore, we have included a slightly larger image below which will allow you to appreciate a little more of the detail added by Da Vinci and Verrocchio many centuries ago. Our references section also includes some major publications that provide larger reproductions of the painting in printed form, alongside some excellent texts about each artwork, plus more general discussions about the artist's life and career as a whole.

The Baptism of Christ in Detail by Leonardo da Vinci and Verrocchio

References