Piero della Francesca – The Baptism of Christ

Art...and math

Let’s see what happens when a good painter is also a mathematician

Let’s discover the Baptism of Christ!

ARTIST Piero della Francesca
NAME The Baptism of Christ
LOCATION National Gallery, London
YEAR 1440 circa
TYPE Painting
DIMENSIONS 167×116 cm (66×46 in)
MATERIAL Tempera on panel

Hi art lovers and welcome back to another post about Renaissance art! Today I want to talk about another important and famous painting: The Baptism of Christ by the Italian master Piero della Francesca.

This painting, apparently “simple”, is actually full of symbolisms and meanings. We should not be surprised since Piero was not just a great artist, but also a very good mathematician, humanist and one of the first experts on perspective.

In The Baptism of Christ we can find these elements and let’s start to explore them together.

The tempera on panel was commissioned by the Camaldolese Monastery of Sansepolcro (the village in Tuscany where Piero was born), but the dating is controversial. Presumably it was painted some time about 1440. What we know for sure is that it was originally part of a triptych, with side panels of St Peter and St Paul and a predella.

The Scene

The composition depicts the figure of Christ being baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist on the right. The dove flying above Jesus’s head represents the Holy Spirit in the Catholic symbolism and we can see how Piero painted it resembling the clouds in the sky to harmonize it better in the scene.

Jesus’s body is exactly in the middle alligned with John’s hand and the bowl and the dove, forming an axis which divides the painting in two symmetrical parts. Of course the scene shows Jesus’s baptism, so it makes sense he is in the middle, but the meaning is deeper. The original triptych frame, in fact, may have included a roundel above the dove showing God the Father, which with Christ and the dove would complete the Holy Trinity.

The Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity is one of the foundations of the Roman Catholic religion, but here Piero wanted to make it really “central” and evident. Why? Once again there is a reason.

The painted was contemporary to the Council of Florence (1431–45) whose goal was the unification of the Western and Eastern Churches since there were different points of view about many topics, like the role of the Holy Trinity. The Camaldolese monk and theologian, Saint Ambrose Traversari (died in 1439), who had been Prior General of the Camaladolese congregation, had been a strong supporter of the union and about the importance of the Holy Trinity. The painting wants to show that and it “hides” also other symbols!

Piero della Francesca - The Baptism of Christ, detail
The Baptism of Christ, detail


Behind the man getting undressed on the right there are figures dressed in an oriental fashion, probably Byzantine dignitaries who came for the Council. Also the three angels have different meanings. They are 3 first of all, but also their colors: blue, red and white are the colors of the Order of the Most Holy Trinity and of the Captives. At the same time 2 angels are hugging each other showing the union between the two Churches and the first one on the left has the hand in a position that meant harmony/peace.

The angels, and the other figures as well, are painted with precise traits. However, we are probably surprised by the intense light. A light that makes the scene a bit “unnatural”, but that allows to make every detail visible since the main purpose is to communicate a clear message. For example a detail that it is visible even if very far is the city, probably Sansepolcro, in background between the third angel and Jesus.

Another symbol is the connection between the tree and Jesus. Similar on the color, the tree represents solidity, strength and the connection between the earth and sky.


Talking about the tree, a difficult quiz: why is it placed exactly there? A suggestion? Remember that I told you Piero della Francesca was also a mathematician. The answer in the interactive picture at the end of the post.

Once again we learnt how even a painting apparently simple hides a lot of meanings and details. This time thanks to the master Piero della Francesca who was able to combine art with science and gave us many masterpieces that we are going to explore together.

See you in the next post!

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