Brussels 1618 - Goa, Portuguese India 1664
The Baptism of Christ
105 x 83cm
This beautiful painting was made between 1656 and 1659, the years following Sweerts' return to Brussels from Rome. Its moving atmosphere of submissive humility and suspended moment of focus, have no distractions. What surrounds the two protagonists is the beauty of a fresh, morning landscape, the river framed by trees and reeds. The dying light of the moon lends a tactile clarity to details at the upper right, in contrast to the soft, clear water in the foreground, subtly jewelled with water lilies, in which Christ's feet and lower legs are submerged. This foreground pool leads the eye back along its course towards a distant, unsettled sky, clearing to blue.
The composition relates closely to Sweerts' paintings of men bathing, in Strasbourg and Hannover, also set in a wooded landscape at the edge of a river. This landscape is strikingly, lusciously Flemish. Indeed, we see in this painting the full range of Sweerts’ extraordinary technique, from the watery paint and soft, sketchy brushwork of the riverbank, to the subtle modelling and glazing of Christ’s flesh. Likewise his range of light effects is apparent, from the depths of the receding night sky, where patches of the purplish-black ground are allowed to show through, to the delicate, cool tones of Christ’s flesh, in which those same purplish notes echo in a higher key. And the water, beneath which Christ’s legs seem to shiver while remaining firmly planted, is punctuated with thin, decisive, horizontal strokes of white.
We are reminded of Rubens' fine Baptism of 1605, now in Antwerp(2), but painted for the Jesuit church in Mantua. Simon Schama has pointed out the self-conscious Italianisation of Rubens' painting, in which he combines manner and motifs from Titian, Michelangelo and Raphael(3). It is an interesting model, too, for Sweerts, in that the composition is divided into the Baptism on the left and a group of muscled, Michelangelesque bathers on the right. Sweerts separated these two elements into two different subjects in his work (much as he divided the Seven Acts of Mercy into seven different paintings), but he retains the sentiment, here, of Christ as the still center of the composition; the Baptist as active, Christ as passive(4).
At the time of Sweerts' return to Brussels, the influence of Rubens would have redoubled its impact upon him, and he may well have seen the Baptism on his way back through northern Italy. The cooler light and more academic composition of his Strasbourg Bathers suggest the same period as the Baptism, and a pedagogic composition for use in the Academy opened by Sweerts in 1656(5). The same element is also implied in the Baptism by the use of one model for both figures, but academic motives are far outweighed by the moving sentiment of the picture. This is brilliantly evoked by a dynamic of deliberate oppositions: the figure of the Baptist demonstrates an open gesture, with weight and direction leading to the right. Christ's weight is also on the right side of his body, but his gesture is a closed one, thus changing the way in which the well-developed musculature of torso and arms is articulated. The upward movement of the Baptist's hand, raised to let the water fall, is balanced by the downcast eyes of Christ, arms crossed devotionally on his breast as he awaits the gentle impact of the cleansing stream upon his head.
This play of hands and arms relates closely to the late paintings, which concentrate on psychological interaction and on moments, like this one, of poignant transformation(6). In the so-called Clothing the naked in New York, for example(7), emphasis is again on two protagonists, this time shown in half-length, One is in clerical robes, the other unclothed, and an open gesture is again answered by a closed one. The unclothed man’s head, torso and gesture of prayer are similar to the Christ figure, though the troubled expression of the New York subject is here calmed and soothed by the humility of acceptance; the luminous light upon the men's muscular bodies is overwhelmed by the sweet solemnity of the moment.
In 1660 Sweerts left Brussels for Amsterdam, where his functional involvement with the Société des Missions Etrangères began. Joining them as an artist and lay brother was a dramatic change in his life, and one wonders how far this image, of a moment of poignant change and acceptance, had a biographical charge for him. For, having already adjusted his subject matter, light and treatment, from the warmth and earthiness of Rome to the cooler, more formal Brabant environment, Sweerts was shifting once more: from a liberal, tolerant, cosmopolitan community of artists to a life of self-denial and acceptance of duty, again shared with a group of similarly dedicated men. This picture seems to be situated on the threshold of that shift, almost at the liminal moment between one modality and another.
Until recently this picture remained inaccessible in a Swedish private collection. Known from an old black and white photograph and much over painted it was understandably hard for Kultzen to accept. The recent cleaning and subsequent study has revealed an outstanding work from Sweerts maturity. It is a rare survival from the series of Bathers and a very personal interpretation from a pivotal scene in Christs' Life by this deeply religious artist.
Wolfson College, Cambridge
1. My special thanks go to Sarah Walden, for her sensitive approach to Sweerts' work and for the information and insight into his paint handling and technique she has shared.
2. The Baptism of Christ,, c. 1605, oil on canvas, 482 x 605cm, Antwerp, Koninlijk voor Schone Kunsten. I am very grateful to Ivan Lindsay for pointing out this relationship.
3. Simon Schama, Rembrandt's Eyes, (London: Penguin, 1999), p. 119 120
4. Ibid., p. 153.
5. The Bathers in Hannover, Staatliches Museum, was made in Rome and the palette is based on warm browns and earth colours.
6. See, for example, the painting of two men (wrongly entitled Clothing the naked), New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, oil on canvas, 81 x 112 cm.; or the painting of Two men in Turbans Los Angeles, Getty Centre, oil on canvas, 22.5 x 17 cm.
7. See note 4 above.