Lucas van Leyden (born 1489 or 1494 – died 1533) is a celebrated figure within the history of printmaking. On loan currently to the BMA is his engraving entitled The Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan, dated to around 1510. It can be seen in the exhibition Embodying Faith: Imagining Jesus Through the Ages, on view through April 21, 2019.
On the edge of a wooded area, a crowd gathers around a small body of water. Jesus stands in the water, which rises just above his knees. To the right, at the edge of the water, kneels St. John, who is preparing to baptize Jesus. Closest to the viewer, on the left, are two men. Next to and looking at them sits a child, who gestures towards Jesus and St. John. In the lower right of the print stands a woman with her back turned towards us, and a small village is seen in the distance on the right.
The composition of this print is unusual. One might expect that Jesus is at the center of the composition dominating the scene, as is common in countless other depictions of his Baptism. But here we see him almost tucked away behind the crowd and slightly off center. No one seems to be paying any mind to what is happening except for one figure, the small child in the lower center. Van Leyden makes the crowd, instead of Jesus, the main focus of his composition.
Why would van Leyden do this? To find the answer to this question, one needs to consider when van Leyden was working. The early 16th century was a time of significant change, especially within the Roman Catholic Church. Biblical texts and writings were becoming more available to the public, and people were questioning the church’s authority. Only a few years after this print was made, Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses, and the Protestant Reformation began. Does van Leyden’s print comment on these developments in any way?
The key to understanding the work may be the two men in the foreground and the child next to them. The child sits with his back turned to the viewer, gesturing towards Jesus, urging the two men beside him to look at what is happening behind them, but the men are deeply engaged in conversation. What are they discussing? Van Leyden likely meant to depict these men as Pharisees, Jews mentioned in the New Testament who opposed Jesus. Their conversation may point to the debates over religious doctrine occupying the church at this time, or they simply represent those who doubt that Jesus is the son of God. They lack the “childlike faith” Jesus requires his followers to have, embodied here by the child. Van Leyden also describes this crucial event in the Christian story of salvation with great realism as if it were an everyday event; van Leyden’s omits the usual halo for Jesus, as well as the dove that represents the Holy Spirit. This realism makes the event more relatable to the viewer, who, studying this print, becomes one of its many witnesses. The parting of the crowd in the foreground seems to invite us to be part of the conversation. One wonders if the print is perhaps a comment on the ongoing debates within the church? Is is a call to return to devotion? Take a moment. Imagine standing amongst this crowd. What do you think?