Piero della Francesca (ca. 1420-1492) is in a legion of famous painters who were lost to art history for centuries — in his case, for over four. The works of Piero, along with artists including Sandro Botticelli (1446-1510) and Jan Vermeer (1632-1675), were among those “re-found” in the 19th century by artists, collectors, critics, and art historians.

Piero della Francesca.  The Baptism of Christ, 1450s.  Tempera on wood, approximately 5' 6" by 3'10".  National Gallery, London.

Piero della Francesca.  The Baptism of Christ, 1450s.  Tempera on wood, approximately 5′ 6″ by 3’10”.  National Gallery, London.

None was more influential in rediscovering Piero della Francesca than Roberto Longhi (1890-1970), an Italian art historian.   Through his 1914 article, “Piero dei Franceschi e lo sviluppo della pittura veneziana,” (“Piero Francesca and the Development of Venetian Painting”),

Longhi launched Piero’s journey from relative obscurity to present acclaim as one of the most famous painters of the Italian Renaissance.  Longhi’s subsequent book, Piero della Francesca, was published in 1927 and is still considered the preeminent formal analysis of Piero.

Influenced by investigations into perspective by Paulo Uccello (ca. 1397-1475), Piero became so knowledgeable that he published a treatise in 1474.  This fascination with linear
perspective and mathematical and geometrical precision is evident in one of his earliest extant works, The Baptism of Christ.

In Christian belief, the Trinity is the collective name for “the one nature of God” – God the Father; God the Son, who is Christ; and the Holy Spirit.  In The Baptist of Christ, the dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit witnessing Christ’s baptism (note how its shape resembles a cloud).

Right: Geometric Analysis of The Baptism of Christ.

It is speculated that a portrayal of God the Father may have been in a roundel or medallion above the work; it is certain that The Baptism of Christ was originally the central section of a polyptych, a work comprised of four or more painted or carved panels hinged together.

The Baptism of Christ exemplifies many developments in painting during the first portion of the 15th century, including:

  • chiaroscuro, or using shadow and lighting to create three dimensional shapes;
  • realism (the greenish hue to Christ’s skin is a result of green underpainting wearing through and is not the original color of his flesh);
  • perspective and proportionality; and
  • descriptive landscape (behind Christ is Piero’s home town of Sansepolcro in Tuscany).

Compositionally, Baptism has a pronounced central vertical: the dove is aligned with the baptismal water St. John the Baptist is pouring; it is aligned with the tip of Christ’s beard; the beard is positioned just above Christ’s praying hands, which are aligned with his navel.

Yet despite the exacting linear perspective in The Baptism of Christ, this monumental composition doesn’t feel mathematical or contrived but is instead mysteriously spiritual and quiet.

Perhaps that is why Piero della Francesca is widely recognized as a timeless artist, and is deservedly one of the most famous painters in the early Renaissance.

Why do you believe Baptism has such stillness to it? What has Piero done to convey this?