Room 37, National Gallery, London
Oil on Copper
28.1 x 21 cm
Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610) was a talented German Mannerist/Baroque painter, etcher and draftsman. He arrived in Venice in 1599, and began to develop his own individual style, specializing in small-scale works on copper. His melancholy and reclusive personality influenced his style. He mastered the precision of technique and combined it with innovative landscapes, multiple light sources and exotic figures to achieve different moods. His techniques were influenced by artists such as Tintoretto and Veronese. Although his output of works was small due to his short lifespan, Elsheimer significantly influenced the development of 17th century landscape painting. His artistic excellence inspired later artists such as Claude, Rembrandt, and even his friend Rubens. His works rarely consisted of prominent figures; rather, he tended to put more focus on the landscape. By 1600 Elsheimer ventured to Rome, and became known for his nocturnal scenes that featured a unique balance between the techniques of chiaroscuro and tenebrism. He is even credited as the first artist to accurately represent the constellations in his painting “The Flight into Egypt” (1609). Elsheimer died at the age of 32, and completed only about forty works total.
The Baptism of Christ by Elsheimer is an innovative depiction of this event. This work features a wooded and mountainous landscape, rather than the Jordan River. At the top of the painting, God can be seen looking down on this event. He is surrounded by four cherubs, who encircle the dove that is symbolic of the Holy Ghost. Another angel in a red robe descends from the Heavens towards Christ. This is the moment that God declares, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” (Mtw 3:17). The man in the foreground has been determined to be a man removing a shoe. This is an odd addition. Typically, nothing is interfering with the direct view of Christ in the depictions of the baptism. Jesus is looking at the man with an inquisitive gaze. This could be an allusion to the future cleansing of the Disciples’ feet, which is a symbol of Christ’s graciousness and service. He washed their feet as an example for His followers; just as the baptism was to be an example for His followers. The swirling composition of figures indicates Tintoretto and Veronese influence. Elsheimer’s Baptism of Christ was the beginning of his Baroque-styled paintings. The twisting and overlapping bodies create a sense of movement. The rays of light cast from the Heavens stream down on the figures, which showcases Elsheimer’s skill. The heavy use of highlights and shadows is common of Baroque paintings. This painting is capturing a specific moment in time.
The amount of detail on such a small-scaled painting is amazing. Elsheimer is extremely talented in portraying a realistic capturing of light. Despite its small size, this painting demands a strong response. The twisted composition creates a movement that draws you in. You want to know what Christ is thinking as he gazes at the man in the forefront. I like this painting a lot more than other portrayals of the baptism. The unique style caught my attention. Rather than it being just another painting of the baptism of Christ, it required further observation. The landscape is beautiful and eye-catching.