‘After Jesus Had Been Baptized and Was Praying, Heaven Was Opened’

Jesus’ baptism is a sign of solidarity with humanity as well as proclamation of who he is, his identity and mission.

Nicolas Poussin, “The Baptism of Christ,” c. 1658
Nicolas Poussin, “The Baptism of Christ,” c. 1658 (photo: Public Domain)

The Baptism of the Lord closes the Christmas season. The next day begins the First Week of Ordinary Time, Lent following in five weeks on Feb. 17. The Christmas season is full of theophanies, i.e., revelations of the divine. Christmas itself “hails the Incarnate Deity” (to borrow “Hark the Herald Angels’ insight). Epiphany reveals Jesus sent as Redeemer of all humanity. The Baptism of the Lord reveals Jesus’ Identity at the beginning of his public ministry at age 30, after the “hidden life.” 

In terms of the Gospels’ interest, with the Baptism of Jesus, John’s ministry comes to an end and Jesus’ begins. (The three Synoptic Gospels also note that, after his Baptism, Jesus then undergoes his temptations in the desert.)

Because the Baptism of Jesus is such a turning point in the Gospels, it has frequently been represented in art, even by the same artist. (There are, after all, only a limited number of events recounted in the Gospels!) As we noted in the case of Rembrandt’s depictions of aspects of the Presentation (Holy Family Sunday), so there are two major “Baptism of Jesus” representations by the 17th-century French Baroque classical painter, Nicolas Poussin. Both are in the United States: one in the National Gallery in Washington, the other at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. My focus is on the latter.

Poussin (1594-1665) is considered an example of “French classical Baroque” although, as some note his work is hardly as Baroque — at least in terms of the flamboyance that it meant in most of the rest of Europe — as classical. Both Catholic and classic mythology themes figures prominently in his works. Although he spent some time in France, most of Poussin’s career was passed in Rome, where his sober, intellectual style (with touches of Renaissance concerns) distinguished him from the prevalent Baroque around him. His “Baptism of Christ” dates from c. 1658, i.e., the last decade of his life.

Jesus, in the process of being baptized by John, is the central figure of the painting, despite the fact that he is kneeling in the left. The viewer’s eye is shifted toward him in three ways. 

First, of all the figures, Jesus is most fully clothed, and the colors of his robe and cloak are the brightest. Poussin uses those colors to keep shifting the eye towards Jesus. In keeping with classical conventions of balance, they are not in sharp contrast, but they are brighter. They are, in some sense, “supported” by partial garments of pink and blue (with an eye-catching yellow in the middle — some say the man is modeled on a Roman depiction of Seneca), but Jesus’ is the larger and more complete set, on which light better reflects. The color of the garments also contrasts to the earthy skin tones of the other people. 

Second, all the other figures are, in fact, a kind of “supporting cast,” whose gazes, poses and hand gestures all point in Jesus’ direction. But for one figure on the right looking at the viewer (and thus drawing him into the painting), all the other people are oriented towards Jesus. Their leftward pull leads us to John’s hands, extended over Jesus, from which trickles a stream of water on to Jesus’ head.

Third, the sky and background landscape are relatively neutral, the blue sky complementing the blue Jordan, and allowing both the bathers and pedestrians in the background to pass by without much notice. The largest tree in the foreground on the left leads us through John and the trickle of baptismal water from his hands to Jesus. The horizontal bands of sky and landscape again shift the action back to the crowd on the shore, which moves us back to Jesus. 

The theophanic element in the painting is the appearance of the Holy Spirit in a direct diagonal over Jesus’ head, which the tree again leads down to John’s outstretched hands and Jesus’ head. 

Poussin’s Baptism best tallies with Luke’s Gospel (Luke 3:21), where the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus as he is praying. The painting does not take account of particularities of the other Synoptics. For example, Mark’s Gospel (1:10) this year speaks of he “heavens torn upon” but Poussin’s Holy Spirit, while he clearly comes from an opening in the heavens, does not strike one as entering that explosively into the scene. Also, Matthew and Mark stress Jesus seeing the descent of the Spirit — clearly not emphasized in Poussin’s painting — whereas Luke speaks only of the Spirit descending while Jesus prays. Matthew speaks of John’s initial resistance to Jesus’ request for baptism, which does not appear apparent in Poussin’s painting, although such a moment conceivably could have already occurred. 

The manner of baptism also literally enters into the picture. Poussin’s Jesus clearly prays, kneeling on the bank of Jordan, while John pours water on his head. That imagery clearly aligns with Luke’s account, where “all the people were being baptized, (and) Jesus was baptized, too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him…” (3:21-22). Matthew (3:16) and Mark (1:10) both remark that the theophany of the Spirit occurs “as Jesus was coming up out of the water.” Both Matthew and Mark seem, then, to envision baptism by immersion. Baptism, after all, etymologically means “to immerse” and submergence into the drowning waters of baptism best images Paul’s theology of Baptism as incorporation into Christ’s Death (Romans 6:1-4). How John might have baptized I will not venture an opinion on, but I note that pouring of water — as opposed to immersion — became more typical in Christianity once the primary candidates for baptism ceased being adult converts and became children born into already-Christian families, which would certainly have long been the case by the time Poussin is painting. (It was, of course, also an issue among some of the more radical variants of Protestantism.)

Let me admit I also picked this painting because it explicitly shows the pouring of water in baptism. After this summer’s scandal in the Archdiocese of Detroit and elsewhere, where at least two priests had to be reordained because their original baptisms were invalid in terms of the form used in them by improvisation-prone ministers, I wanted to underscore clearly the importance of matter (water) and form to baptism. It certainly is in the new sacramental order of Christ. Poussin’s “Baptism of Jesus” in the National Gallery of Art, which was painted more than 15 years earlier than the painting we have analyzed, was in fact part of a series depicting the seven sacraments.

Jesus’ baptism was, of course, not what we call Baptism, because the primary effect of baptism is the remission of sin and Jesus was sinless. As the Church’s prayers for this feast note, in John the waters of baptism “are made holy by the one who is baptized.” Jesus’ baptism is a sign of solidarity with humanity as well as proclamation of who he is, his identity and mission. (In the ancient world, some heretics associated with “Adoptionism” tried to turn Jesus’ Baptism into the moment where the human Jesus is “adopted” or deified by God. The Church always rejected that position because it ultimately undermines the teaching of the Council of Chalcedon that Jesus is “true God and true man,” which in the end is the central truth of Christology.)

Dorota Grondelski, an art historian, consulted on the painting.