Author: Giambattista Cima da Conegliano
Church: Church of San Giovanni Battista in Bragora
Giambattista Cima, also known as Cima da Conegliano (Conegliano 1460 – Ibidem 1518), painted the altarpiece that formed the centerpiece of the rich iconographic program in the presbytery. The subject of the altarpiece is the patron saint, John the Baptist, depicted in the famous episode of the Baptism of Christ, as described in the Gospel of Matthew. The episode carries significant liturgical value. In the Gospel, John affirms that the one who will come “will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Baptism signifies our participation in the sacrifice and subsequent redemption. Therefore, it is not surprising that such an episode is depicted on the altarpiece of the main altar, where the Eucharistic mystery is celebrated.
The narrative of the artwork is filled with allusive references. The Jordan Valley, reminiscent of the Piave Valley beloved by the artist from Conegliano, alludes to the patristic tradition of the contact and purification of water with the body of Christ. In the Letter to the Ephesians, Saint Ignatius of Antioch describes this process, stating that “Christ was born and baptized to purify water with His Passion.” John the Baptist is shown leaning towards Jesus as he baptizes Him, while also humbly withdrawing. In the Gospel of Mark, it emerges that John knew well who he was baptizing (“I am not worthy to untie the strap of His sandals”).
At the center of the artwork is Christ, the true source of salvation and life. Observing the painting, we notice that Christ’s feet rest on the dry bed of the river, while the water withdraws into a natural basin on the shore. This alludes to a passage from Psalm 114, which speaks of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, mentioning how the Red Sea retreated and the Jordan turned back. This passage is also recalled in the Easter liturgy when the baptismal waters are blessed, symbolizing the journey to salvation that each person undertakes after baptism. Christ’s gaze is directed towards the viewer, inviting them to imitate Christ and undergo a radical conversion according to the Christian model.
Above the figure of Christ in the sky, we see the representation of the so-called “theophany,” the manifestation of the Divine Spirit descending in the form of a Dove to consecrate His mission. Here, Cima, in addition to the zoomorphic representation, employs a device widely used in the Old Testament: the cloud from which the Dove of the Spirit descends among rays of light. Surrounding the cloud are the so-called higher angelic choirs, composed of Seraphim (the red angels), Cherubim (blue), and Thrones (yellow). Next to Christ, depicted as they hold His garments, are the lower angelic choirs, with human features.
The painting technique is characterized by abundant use of light, evident in the softness of the body’s limbs and in contrast with the dark tones of the figure of John the Baptist, who is presented in the Gospel of John as the one who “is not the light but came to bear witness to the light.”