RENI, Guido
(b. 1575, Calvenzano, d. 1642, Bologna)

Baptism of Christ

c. 1623
Oil on canvas, 263,5 x 186,5 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Reni's Baptism of Christ, created in the mid 1620s as a major masterpiece of his mature style, is based on principles of composition similar to those applied in The Massacre of the Innocents. The painting is built up into three clearly distinct planes. At the very front, Christ bows beneath the baptismal cup, which John the Baptist pours over him with his raised right hand. The Baptist is standing or, rather, slightly kneeling over Christ on the banks of the Jordan. Below the arc formed by these two figures facing each other in humility, we see two angels who, together with a third figure at the outside left, are holding Christ's robes in readiness. Behind that, the trees, clouds and deep blue sky combine to create a sense of indefinable distance from which the Holy Spirit floats down in the form of a dove.

The entire scene, in its structure and colority, is of overwhelming simplicity. The act of baptism itself is entirely void of bright colours. The matt and shimmering flesh tones of the two nude figures stand out clearly against the middle ground and background, where everything is dominated by the solemn purity of the three primary colours red, yellow and blue. On another level, however, all the figures are closely linked in that expression of complete spiritual devotion that Reni could convey like no other artist.

Reni was able to create a balance of strictly disciplined compositional form and profound sentiment that his many imitators failed to achieve.