Beginning with John the Baptist, baptism became an important sacrament in the early Church and has continued into the present.
Artists have depicted baptism in their work in a wide variety of media, subject matter, context, and purposes. Some early examples of artists depicting baptism typically utilized the example of John the Baptist baptizing Christ.
The ones I’m thinking of specifically are from the Medieval and Italian Renaissance periods. For example, this painting by Paolo Veronese from the Getty’s collection is a fairly typical (although Jesus’ posture is slightly awkward) portrayal of the baptism of Christ.
Veronese uses a lot of motifs found in other similar works of art on the same theme: Christ as the central figure in the picture plane, the dove in the air above Him, John the Baptist wearing his animal skin clothing, and several angels (both the larger figures in the foreground, and the little flying putti above) who surround the scene.
However, the painting that I consider one of my personal favorite representations of baptism is Of the Blues: Carolina Shout by Romare Bearden, whose art I first saw as an intern at the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, NC. Bearden’s painting, in addition to being a much more modern work of art, is also a variation from the more traditional subject of the baptism of Christ to baptism of believers
Bearden is a contemporary artist who spent his childhood summers with his grandparents in a suburb of Charlotte (the place where he was also born). Much of his earlier work harkens back to these times of his life. Being in the south, and with family who were active participants in their faith, Bearden was exposed to Christian practice and rituals. As an artist, he portrayed many of these significant moments in his art, both the everyday and momentous experiences. He typically uses the techniques of assemblage and collage to create a disjointed, but also cohesive image. Bearden created several works on the theme of “Ritual,” and baptism is one of the rituals he chose to depict multiple times.
In this particular piece, in addition to assembling pieces of images to create faces and bodies of the people in the water, Bearden also applied acrylic paint to the surface to add another dimension to the scene. The final result is a colorful and vibrant scene with multiple layers of depth and height.
The American south is known as the Bible Belt, so Christian religious experiences such as church services, baptism, communion, and worship music would have been a part of Romare Bearden’s summers spent with his relatives in North Carolina. The fact that he chose to document these experiences, particularly as a repetitive theme in his art, is significant.
I think there are several reasons why I am drawn to Bearden’s painting about baptism, and especially as a follower of Jesus. First, his experiences with his family in the South mirror my own childhood, particularly summers, with my grandparents. Second, I really resonate with his style; the bright colors, the layers of assemblage, and his use of repeating themes all are elements of his work that interest me. Finally, it brings to mind my own baptism, and the numerous baptisms I have seen in my life. Although the baptism is quite personal and the act itself is performed on the individual, it is also one of the communal experiences we share as believers in Christ.