The Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci
We are in Florence, at the Uffizi Gallery. Here, Bernardo Randelli introduces to us a work by Andrea del Verrocchio, which was made with the collaboration of a very young Leonardo da Vinci: The Baptism of Christ.
Leonardo da Vinci was just 17 years old when he became a pupil of Andrea del Verrocchio: painter, sculptor and goldsmith, he ran one of the most important workshops in 15th-century Florence. Here, masters such as Botticelli, Perugino and Da Vinci were formed. Artists destined to leave their mark in the history of painting.
The Baptism of Christ is a tempera and oil on panel (177 x 151 cm) dating back to 1470-1475 and commissioned to Verrocchio by the Vallombrosan monastery of San Salvi. It was in this period that Leonardo started to work on the painting, according to his master’s will. It was usual in 15th-century artist’s studios, for the studio head to design the piece leaving the secondary parts to be painted by pupils and assistants.
The artwork represents the baptism of Jesus by Saint John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan River, in Palestine. The composition is structured in triangular sense: the base is formed by the Baptist and the angel kneeling on the left. The angel is facing the viewer by three quarters and creates a rotating sense that culminates at the point where the hands of the Baptist are wetting Christ’s head with water. Above, the Dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit surrounded by divine rays and sent by God the Father.
Although the artwork was made “by several hands” – by Verrocchio and some of his students – by now the critics are almost unanimous in tracing in some places the hand of Leonardo.
The figure of the Angel holding the garments of Jesus on the left is attributed – with no doubt – to the young artist. The representation is enchanting: the features of the face are graceful and the finely defined curls look like gold threads. The draperies of the dress present different chromatic vibrations creating plays of lights and shadows.
Leonardo’s angel stands out for the material and articulated pose of its body, but at the same time natural and sweet.
Current studies are orientated towards considering Leonardo’s interventions to be more extensive, including the charming landscape with its evocative river and the figure of Christ.
In the background, the crystal clear waters of the Jordan River and the landscape on the left reveal Leonardo’s powers of observation and his almost maniacal attention to detail, which are simply startling. Although he was a man “without letters” – which means, lacking in education that included the study of the Ancients’ works written in Greek and Latin – he strongly believed in the value of experience and in the meticulous study of reality in all its forms. In this painting, in fact, it is already evident one of the ways in which Leonardo will revolutionize Renaissance painting: the aerial perspective, as he himself describes it in his A Treatise on Painting. This representative style – also known as “atmospheric perspective” – refers to the effect the atmosphere has on the appearance of an object as viewed from a distance: as the distance between an object and a viewer increases, the contrast between the object and its background decreases, and the contrast of any markings or details within the object also decreases. The Baptism of Christ is an example of this technique, here the landscape presents soft and veiled features, as if it were wrapped in vapors soaked with light.
Finally, in the figure of Christ – also made by the young Leonardo – it is evident his attention and care in defining Jesus hands, joined in prayer.
When the pupil surpasses his master
Leonardo’s intervention and his extraordinary mastery stand out in this work and leave his master speechless. The historian Giorgio Vasari in his book The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects tells that Andrea del Verrocchio, at the sight of what his young pupil had achieved, was indignated:
«[For] Andrea del Verrocchio […who was] making a panel in which Saint John baptized Christ, Leonardo painted an Angel, who kept some clothes; and although he was young, he made it in such a mastery way that much better than the figures by Andrea was the Angel of Leonardo. This was the reason because Andrea never again wanted to touch colors, indignant that a child knew more than him.»
This narration is shrouded in legend, in fact the hypothesis that Verrocchio stopped painting has proved to be false. What is true, however, is that Leonardo, just past her teens, already revealed the power and mastery of the genius he would soon become.