>Even My Email Is Nerdy

>At a recent party which I have mentioned previously, various guests took turns to recite bits of poetry for the entertainment of all. When it came his turn, one of the guests apologized for choosing his favorite passage from The Iliad, as perhaps being too nerdy for a party. “Don’t worry,” said our hostess, “we’re all nerds here.”

Case in point is the following email exchange, which I reprint for your…I hesitate to say delectation. Amusement is probably the better term. Though this writer does spend plenty of time doing very ordinary things, he also does have a habit of allowing the mind to run away with him at times, taking the clickety-clacking fingers and keyboard with it. The reader is of course, free to disagree with my conclusions with respect to the panel in question, but I do hope it is an example of how much we may overlook to our peril the subtleties of the Biblical text when examining works of art – against which malady, ongoing efforts of self-education is the best remedy.

[N.B. The name of my correspondent has been removed to protect his being stained with the scarlet letter of nerdiness.]

+ + + + +

Sat, Jan 29, 2011 at 9:23 PM
From: A.
To: William Newton


I’d be curious about your take on The Baptism of Christ, part of the 14th century Master on the Life of Saint John the Baptist (artist unknown).

See NGA’s picture here: http://www.nga.gov/fcgi-bin/tinfo_f?object=272

It is an incredibly rich painting that seems to capture everything that occurred during Christ’s Baptism – except for one element: the Holy Spirit descending upon Christ as a dove.

Any thoughts as to why this was not included?

Have a great weekend


Mon, Jan 31, 2011 at 6:50 PM
From: William Newton
To: A.
An interesting question, but I suspect there is a simple solution:

We note that there is a small figure in the heavens, whom we can
presume to be God the Father. Jesus is just in the process of being
baptized by St. John. Now note the timing in the following

St. Luke says:

21 After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been
baptized and was praying, heaven was opened
22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a
dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you
I am well pleased.”

Note that St. Luke says AFTER Jesus had been baptized, the heavens
open and then the dove comes down while Jesus is praying.

St. Matthew writes:

16 After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold,
the heavens were opened (for him), and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove (and) coming upon him.
17 And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved
Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

So again, the heavens open and the dove is seen coming down AFTER the
baptism is over and Jesus is out of the Jordan, not during the Baptism

St. Mark writes:

10. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn
open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.
11 And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased.”

Again, the Baptism itself is over and Jesus is getting out of the
river when the dove comes down.

St. John the Evangelist does not recount the Baptism as an event, but
he has St. John the Baptist talk about it the next day, and writes
that he – i.e. St. John the Baptist – saw the dove come down after he
had baptized Jesus.

We’ve become accustomed to “all at once” imagery, for example the
Three Kings and the Shepherds all appearing at the same time in the
same painting, even though we know they did not arrive on the same
evening. But in the Middle Ages, artists often took a Biblical story
and studied each nuance of it, from line to line, before painting it.
The Annunciation, for example, had numerous “moments” that an artist
could choose to portray for meditation purposes.

A well-trained eye could detect exactly where in the story the painter
was setting the scene based on things like gestures, such as where the
Virgin Mary places her hands. For example, she would have one gesture
for “How can this be?” and another “I am the handmaid of the Lord.”
Unfortunately this is lost on most of us now, and eventually artists
abandoned trying to paint these subtleties.

Mon, Jan 31, 2011 at 7:18 PM
From: A.
To: William Newton
Hmm, I originally considered your explanation, but then I noticed that many of the other paintings of that time impose multiple historical scenes onto the canvass, without consideration for a linear timeline.

Consider, for example, the execution of John the Baptist, in which you have a soldier beheading him, Herod’s daughter dancing, and the presentation of St. John on a platter.

Further, if the historical compactness explanation was correct, then God wouldn’t need to be included in this painting. As you pointed out in the various Scripture passages, it was not until after the baptism that God the Father or the Holy Spirit make their entrance into the drama.

I remain unsettled :-/


Mon, Jan 31, 2011 at 7:23 PM
From: William Newton
To: A.

But the issue is not what everyone else is doing, it’s why did this
artist portray this event in this way. The vast majority of artists
do in fact show the dove simultaneously, but this is a possible
explanation for its absence in this particular work.

The Baptism of Christ by the Master of the Life of St. John the Baptist (c. 1330-1340)
National Gallery of Art, Washington

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