Exhibition: The Baptism of Christ - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

The guest work


2008-10-08 • 2009-01-11

The Baptism of Christ

Room 3

Little is known about Flemish painter John of Flanders, born in the region of Ghent-Bruges, before his arrival in Spain around 1496. We do know, however, that he was employed by Queen Isabella of Castile, who appointed him court painter.

This panel comes from an altarpiece commissioned by the Queen that was originally installed in the choir of the Carthusian monastery of Miraflores near Burgos whose works were paid for by the Queen herself. The altarpiece was dedicated to St. John the Baptist, patron saint of the Catholic monarchs, both of whose fathers were called John. The largest panel, called The Baptism of Christ, used to stand at the centre of this altarpiece. Four more panels depicting scenes from the life of the saint that originally surrounded this panel are in different museums today.

The Baptism of Christ depicts two different baptismal rites: the ancient rite by complete immersion with the figure of Christ in the River Jordan, and the new rite whereby water was poured on the head of the person being baptised. Here, John the Baptist sprinkles water over Christ's head. In accordance with religious iconography, the Holy Spirit appears above the head of Christ and the scene is completed with God the Father appearing in a clearing in the clouds surrounded by angels. God the Father is wearing the imperial crown and holding a globe in His left hand whilst pointing at the dove representing the Holy Spirit with His right. Of the three main figures standing to the fore, the raiment of the angel with spread wings suggests the liturgical garment called the alb. The angel is also carrying what appears to be a stole which he is about to give to Christ. Christ appears facing us dressed only with a perizonium or loincloth that represents purity. Finally, John the Baptist baptises Christ and prostrates himself before Him. On the ground beside the angel, the deep folds of the alb and stole the angel is carrying are exquisitely painted.

Restoration work undertaken in 1985 revealed that an iconographic change occurred after the panel had been completed. At some later date, possibly in the XIX century, the position of the hands of Christ had been altered to fold them together on His chest. His loincloth had also been painted longer. The most recent restoration of the panel, however, has eliminated all traces of the overpainting and returned the panel to its original appearance. It is possible that Flandes originally painted a naked Christ and then added a loincloth at the request of Queen Isabella.

The horizon of the landscape appearing to the rear of the scene leaves scant room for the sky. The River Jordan flows behind and in front of Christ at the centre of the composition. The landscape is further made up of people and animals depicted in decreasing size so as to give the effect of depth. The verticality of the main figures is also repeated in the trunks of the poplar trees painted at different distances in order to further enhance the illusion of perspective. To the fore, the precious stones in the weeds symbolise paradise, whilst the branch of coral symbolises the death of Christ and his Holy Redemption.


Juan de Flandes ("John of Flanders") (1465-1519)
The Baptism of Christ, c. 1496-99
Oil on Holm oak panel, 186.3 x 110.5 cm
The Abelló Collection