Painted by Michele Tosini (called Michele di Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, 1503–1577) in 1565 at the height of his career in Florence, this work combines the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:21) with the three temptations of Christ (Luke 4:1–9). It should be read in a counterclockwise direction. The temptation to turn stones into bread, on the right, shows a hunched-over devil in discussion with an attentive Christ. “Command these stones be made bread,” the tempter says to Christ. In the second temptation, directly above the baptism, the devil leads Christ up the mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. Christ raises his right hand as if prepared to respond, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Tosini draws a contrast between Christ’s humility in the center of the painting toward John and his defiance of the devil. Christ and the devil stand on top of the dome of the Jerusalem Temple in the third temptation. The devil is suggesting that Christ throw himself down and be protected by the angels. Christ responds by raising his right hand in refusal.
In 1401, Lorenzo Ghiberti won the competition held by the Arte di Calimala, the guild of importers and finishers of woolen cloth, to decorate the north doors of the baptistery in Florence. Baptism of Christ was one of 28 panels depicting scenes from the life of Christ. The baptistery was an especially important building for the Florentines, because the patron saint of the city was John the Baptist. Ghiberti’s bronze panel, although still in a medieval quatrefoil shape, is considered one of the earliest examples of Italian Renaissance art. Ghiberti selected the moment in the narrative when Christ is praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove (Luke 3:21–22). Ghiberti portrayed the dove emerging out of the panel toward the viewer. This feature, along with the placement of Christ’s feet in the river believably covered by the water, is evidence of the advancements Italian Renaissance artists were making in depicting nature. Christ is posed in a stance used by classical Greek sculptors.
Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism is spare. But there is this: Jesus is baptized in a river, in the wilderness. The baptisms where I preside have been relatively tame. Still, the danger of the river is present.