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Baptism of Christ

Baptism: a painting for St. Mary’s, East Lavant.

Inspiration

In many traditional depictions of the Christian stories, artists made the narrative more accessible by seeing it through the eyes of their own time and place. The familiar setting and local details meant that people could identify with the events and see the stories more easily in terms of their own lives.
I hoped that by setting Jesus’ Baptism in the context of the landscape around Lavant, I could create this sense of an immediate connection to an event that can seem geographically and historical remote, and yet also use familiar local imagery to meditate on the more timeless, symbolic dimensions of the event.

Blake's Jerusalem - according to local tradition inspired by local scenery- also suggested to me not only the idea of Jesus “in England’s pleasant pastures seen” but of the “Countenance Divine… shining forth upon our clouded hills”.

In commissioning the painting the Rector told me to be guided by the Holy Spirit- so having found my starting point I let the painting take its own course as I attempted to weave the many strands together, meditating on its meaning as I did so. As in many of my other works, I introduced elements from traditional artworks: the figure of Jesus was adapted from a painting of Christ crucified by Velazquez; and among others, the works of Gauguin, Constable, Turner, and Leonardo made their influence felt as the painting progressed.

Symbolism

On the left hand side of the picture is the distant figure of a local shepherd who has been washing his sheep in the river Lavant, as was the tradition up until very recently (hence “Sheepwash Lane”). So the painting could perhaps be seen as the shepherd’s daydream, imagining Jesus- described by John the Baptist as the “Lamb of God” - undergoing ritual “cleansing” in his Baptism by John.


Baptism is a symbolic washing away of spiritual “dirt”, of all that is superfluous in us; only our quintessential humanity remains. It is an implicit recognition of our limitations, our frailty- and yet also of the loving core that is laid bare once the legacy of our less-than-perfect worldly interactions has been stripped away.

The composition links the narrative of Jesus' Baptism with the temptations that follow it in the Gospel narrative. These show Jesus going through a spiritual trial that puts to the test the divine love that was symbolically revealed and divinely sanctioned at his Baptism. He has to choose between being self-serving or God-serving;

and in choosing the latter Jesus remains spiritually “clean”: he resists his meaner human impulses, and yet remains within his human limitations. This loving, selfless humility is expressed by Jesus’ outstretched arms, simultaneously embracing and offering himself up; for the pose also suggests the ultimate self-sacrifice of crucifixion.

Below Jesus’ right hand, the stony river bank suggests the first temptation: to turn stones into bread- the human desire to take the easy road, and to pursue worldly needs and desires before serving God.

In the background, the summit of the Trundle can be seen as the high place to which Jesus is taken during the second temptation, to survey the world that could be his, with some distant Spitfires above suggesting the enticing thrill of worldly power over others, and over Creation itself.

In the sky to the right the ghostly image of Chichester cathedral spire suggests humanity’s heavenward aspirations, but it also brings to mind Jesus’ third temptation: to put God to the test by throwing himself from the pinnacle of the temple- in effect to see God as there to serve humanity instead of vice-versa.

The arching rainbow links the New Testament symbolism of the Baptism to that of the Old Testament: in the story of Noah it appeared as a miraculous sign of hope following the “cleansing” of humanity by the waters of the flood, marking a covenant linking Earth and Heaven, a connection that would become truly complete in the person of Jesus.

Above the rainbow, a large glowing disc suggests the Heavenly realm, like a glimpse to another dimension. Within it we glimpse a flickering, elusive image of the eternal face of Divine love. The light emanating from it can be seen as the mediating presence of the Holy Spirit, forming a direct connection to the human Jesus below, guiding his humanity along the true path within the distracting world of earthly temptations.

As the most tangibly realistic element in the painting, the figure of Jesus forms a direct link with the congregation, his arms held out as though to embrace us all; and so people looking at the painting are invited to be involved, as witnesses gathered at this symbolic Baptism, seen as an event happening in the context of their own local time and place, and relevant to their own lives.

My own ideas about the picture changed as I painted it, and might well develop further over time. Each person who sees the picture will interpret the painting in their own way, and so, in a sense, it is completed by those who stand before it, who bring to it their own life experiences and, hopefully, find new meanings that I did not foresee.



Richard Whincop

You can see further examples of Richard's work on his web-site here http://www.richardwhincop.co.uk/  in addition here's a link to the movie made about the creation of this work: https://vimeo.com/54183780

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