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Baptism of Christ, early 1450s

Giovanni di Paolo

Italian, 1403-1482
Tempera and gold leaf on panel
30 x 13-3/8 in. (76.2 x 34.0 cm)
The Norton Simon Foundation
F.1973.07.P
© The Norton Simon Foundation

On view

The Baptism of Christ belongs to a narrative cycle depicting the life of St. John the Baptist. The vertical proportions of this and the other 11 surviving panels suggest that they may have formed part of a custodia, or cupboard that contained a sacred relic. By the late nineteenth century, the 12 sections of the ensemble had been separated; they can now be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and museums in Munich and Avignon.

The composition is presented in an abstracted and hierarchical arrangement. Christ stands in the Jordan river, with its banks extending in back of him, but little beyond. The plane of water and land and the row of attendant angels incline steeply toward the golden rays of light, above which God the Father gives his blessing. Giovanni di Paolo’s love of precise detail and pattern is everywhere evident. His tight, linear drawing creates a tension that, in combination with the sacred narrative, presents a scene of magic and mystery.

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