Sistine Chapel, Rome
335 cm × 540 cm
Pietro Perugino was born in 1446 in Umbria, Italy, and most likely began to study painting in Perugia at the ripe young age of nine. He apprenticed in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio alongside artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Filippino Lippi, and Domenico Ghirlandiao. In 1472, he finished his apprenticeship and was enrolled as a painter in the confraternity of St. Luke. He was one of the earliest Italian artists to master oil painting. He mainly worked in Florence; however, he took a journey to Rome in 1480 to work on the Sistine Chapel frescos. One of the altar walls done by Perugino was destroyed in order to make room for Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment.” In 1500, Michelangelo openly told Perugino he was a “bungler” in art, meaning his works with inadequate and inefficient. This encouraged and inspired Perugino to produce his masterpiece “Madonna and Saints” for the Certosa of Pavia. He famously taught Raphael, and passed down his artistic skills and techniques to him. Raphael was even chosen over him to do works for the Vatican. After a decline in his career, Perugino died of the plague in the year 1523.
This Renaissance fresco is a combined effort of Perugino and Pinturicchio. Pinturicchio was probably responsible for the landscape and scenes to the left and right of the baptism scene. There are two secondary scenes, Christ Preaching on the right and the Sermon of John the Baptist on the left. The Baptism of Christ faces the Circumcision of Moses’ son by Perugino and Pinturicchio. This was essentially a comparison between the new religion of Christ and the Jewish religion. It suggested by Augustine and the other Fathers of Church that the new religion in Christ is deeper and more spiritual, and actually represents a “spiritual circumcision.” The viewer’s attention is drawn to the center, where Christ is being baptized in the Jordan. A dove is hovering above Christ and John the Baptist, which is symbolic of the presence of the Holy Spirit at this event. It is descending from the sky sent by the approving God, who is represented by a luminous cloud with cherubs. This image follows a symmetrical pattern, which was typical of Perugino’s work. Some elements of this work are inspired by Flemish painting.
The fresco technique had existed for a long time, but it became especially popular during the Renaissance. Buon fresco, or true fresco, consists of brush painting onto freshly applied, wet lime plaster. The pigments dry right into the plaster making it an exceptionally permanent method. Once it was started, the artist was not able to make changes to the composition of the painting and had only the drying time of the plaster, which was about 8-9 hours, to complete his work.
I saw both the fresco and a tapestry representation of this work. Both were visually impressive. My eyes were drawn to the center where Christ is being baptized, just as the artist intended. The sides are kind of chaotic, but upon further research it makes sense what Perugino was trying to convey.