Andrea del Verrocchio is known primarily as a Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith, but he and his busy workshop in Florence also produced paintings. He trained many young artists and among them was Leonardo da Vinci, who assisted with this painting of the Baptism of Christ. Leonardo painted the angel at the far left as well as some of the landscape. Most of the painting is done in tempera, which uses egg yolk to bind the pigment, but some areas also include touches of oil paint, a new medium that was just being introduced in Italy at this time by Dutch and Flemish painters.
The people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
After all the people had been baptized
and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,
heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him
in bodily form like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased.”
Gospel of Luke
In the painting we see Jesus being baptized by John as the angels hold his garments. John is pouring water from a dish onto the head of Jesus, though it is more likely that full body immersion was practiced. The hands of God bestow a blessing into the scene as the Holy Spirit descends amid rays of holy light. The scenery in the background appears to be the wilderness that Jesus will depart into immediately following the baptism. Afterwards he will begin his ministry and his journey toward the cross.
In the Gospel of Matthew, John protests that he should be the one receiving baptism from Jesus, but Jesus persuades him to go through with it. In this we see Jesus humbling himself by going into the water, showing his self-emptying and submission to the will of God. Also in Matthew, the voice of God is addressed to the crowd, saying “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Mark and Luke, however, both write that the voice speaks directly to Jesus, proclaiming, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus hears this loving approval from God….and so do we! This is what the Father speaks to each and every one of us; we are all his beloved children. Furthermore, our status as the beloved is not based on anything we do. It is not contingent upon our goodness or our actions. At this point in the Gospels, Jesus ministry hasn’t even begun; there are no miracles yet, no preaching to the multitudes, no raising of the dead, no crucifixion. And yet, the Father is well pleased and calls him the beloved.
Imagine yourself there. The warmth of the sun is on your face. The rocks are uneven beneath your feet and the cool, cleansing water swirls around your lower half. You can hear the sounds of the river, the wind in the trees, and the birds chattering and cheeping as they flutter about. The baptist supports your back and lowers you quickly into the water, pronouncing you cleansed of all your sins. You gasp for air as you he pulls you up again, feeling the clean chill of the water sluicing away your dirt and grime and sin. Suddenly there is a loud rushing sound and you watch as the sky above you is torn open. Golden rays of light explode toward you and you hear a voice from heaven saying, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”
This is the promise of baptism, the promise of God for us. We are united in baptism with Jesus and reborn to new life as children of God, inheritors of eternal life. This is our great joy, that we are the beloved! I am the beloved child of God. Try a meditation repeating that sentence slowly to yourself, savoring it, while picturing the scene above. Claim the joy of the knowledge that you are beloved.