ART AS SPIRITUAL FOOD
Through the lens of : Pierra della Francesca's painting, "Baptism of Christ".
It’s summer where I am, with lots of immersions taking place in swimming pools and surf; and church-goers remembering the Baptism of Christ. I am looking at a screen image of one of my favourite paintings, a sublime work by the the Renaissance master, Pierra della Francesca - The Baptism of Christ. You too may only have access to a screen image, unless you live close to London’s National Gallery. The screen image cannot do justice to the serenely blended hues and painterly detail, but it is worth a look : if for nothing else, as interfaith harmonisation of the occult and prophetic traditions.
Pierra della Francesca is remembered equally as mathematician and artist, typical of the Leonardo-esque Renaissance man. There is all that marriage of quantity and quality, science and religion going on. Of course, there is that mastery of perspective and proportion, characteristic of the painting of the age. The geometry is not obsessive, but densely symbolic, rendering a kind of talisman - a magical object that focusses cosmic radiations and and evokes them in the viewer. An amulet or talisman is no mere decorative artefact. The metaphysical principles grasped and seamlessly concretised make the art work a repository of powerful numinous influences. Like a stringed instrument vibrating in sympathy to a previously-plucked string, whoever comes into attentive contact with the talisman starts subtly resonating to those influences.
The painting depicts the baptism of Jesus in a highly stylised Jordan River by John the Baptist, a nicely-groomed wild man. The river courses through the centre of the composition like the fabled River of Life under the Tree of Life, arching towards the celestial dome of heaven, and shading the subject, Jesus, placed precisely on the central axis. The tree divides the frame according to the Golden Section, phi, the perfect proportion known to the ancients, deemed most aesthetically resonant to the eye, and employed in the Parthenon and other great works of art. This phi ratio (1:1.618) can also be observed in the proportion between the upper and lower sections of Christ’s body created by the navel-level arc of his elbows. Without reaching for the ruler, I’d also say that the heads of Jesus and John cut the painting’s vertical axis in the same proportion.
The golden ratio, which can be derived from the five-pointed star, and linked to the Fibonacci series of numbers, is well known to sacred geometricians as a symbol of regeneration, and expressive of the relationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm. This was esoteric stuff, taught in Ancient Mystery schools of Greece and the Hermetic tradition of Egypt. Yet how appropriate to signify baptism - a regeneration, or birth into new, expanded life - and theophany, the divine manifestation of the Godhead as Trinity : the Father, present in the voice that says “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; the Son, Jesus, mediating microcosm and macrocosm; and the Holy Spirit, depicted in the form of the hovering dove. There are other symbols of regeneration and theophany, like the plants sprouting in the foreground, but these will suffice.
There is reinforcing triangularity formed between the elbows and hands held in prayer, and between the angles of John’s legs - one foot on the land (the conscious), and one on water (the unconscious). Note the praying hands over the heart centre (“chakra”); the shell from which water is poured at the crown centre; and the “pincer-pointer” of the beard at the throat centre - another group of three. Then there is the trinity of angels, standing beside the tree. To some, they represent the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church and their reunification that was being attempted at the contemporaneous Council of Florence. Therein is a 15th century ecumenical motif. Beyond that is the interfaith resolution between the Christian prophetic tradition and the occult, Hermetic tradition which was recovered at the Renaissance, along with, and inseparably from, the arts and literature of the classical world.