UNFINISHED: The Baptism of Christ by Jacopo Bassano (Jacopo da Ponte) Italian (ca. 1590)
Within the galaxy of the great Venetian artists, perhaps one of the least known and barely appreciated is Jacopo Bassano – the author of some of the most astonishing arts of the sixteenth century Renaissance. Also known as Jacopo dal Ponte, he was born in 1510 (ca.) in a quaint Italian village called Bassano near Venice. Influenced by the other Venetian veterans including Lorenzo Lotto, Titian, Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese, Bassano’s brush with punctilious precision came to combine the natural beauty of the ordinary with the extraordinary play of light that overshadowed gracefully choreographed figures within a well-understood native narrative.
His innovative mind and tender heart resonates through today’s painting titled ‘The Baptism of Christ’. Bassano executed this work at the ripe old age of eighty years. When he passed away in 1592, this composition remained ‘unfinished’ or ‘non-finito’, spelling out a story that defies the viewer’s expectation while encouraging introspection. It invites the observer to complete what is lacking in the established form of ‘finished’ through interpretation.
Unlike popular depictions, Bassano’s ‘Baptism of Christ’ presents no brilliant sunshine, nor the open heavens or the cheery celebration of the commencement of Christ public ministry. Rather we encounter deep shrilling darkness filled with mystery and premonition. As a new dawn breaks upon the periphery of the canvas, we are drawn to the touch of white that descends down the unending heavens in the form of a dove.
As the Spirit hovers over the waters of the Jordan, the obscure mountains in the background of the painting and the truncated trees at the foreground stand in stillness as they witness the Baptism of God made Flesh. Notice the illuminated Body of Christ that emerges out of the unending darkness and brings to light the figures that surround Him.
As Christ bends down in humble submission, John the Baptist leans forward with his right hand raised towards heaven. His green cloak ruffles as the living waters of Baptism falls forth upon the Giver of Life. In his left hand the Baptist holds a reed cross while at his feet stands a little lamb that gazes intently at the Lamb of God. Here, the stabs of Bassano’s brush brings us to grasp the brutal and yet beautiful reality of the Life of Christ.
Notice Jesus’s tormented face, pale body and unsteady legs. He appears to move with great difficulty and figuratively assumes to the posture of a Cross-bearer. Bassano presents Christ on His way to Calvary for he believed that through His Baptism, Christ accepted His passion, death and resurrection. The angels to our left are aware of this great mystery. The first offers Jesus a crimson robe signifying His passion, the second beholds the will of God while holding on to the green robe representing eternal life. The third divine being bows down in adoration to the story of salvation.
This is the moment of humble unconditional love – where the sinless, spotless Lamb of God stoops low and slips into the cold swampy waters of sin, befriends sinners, bears their sin to set it right with His love even to the point of death. The Baptism of Christ truly testifies to this love which forever remains infinite and never-finished.
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
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