Baptism Of Christ

I can just see all the emails now, every single one informing me that this painting is NOT by Leonardo da Vinci. And they'd be right; technically, it isn't. But it is a significant work in his history as he had so much involvement in it.

The famous Baptism Of Christ (c. 1472) is by Leonardo's master, Andrea del Verrocchio, and was commissioned by the monks of San Salvi near Florence. Leonardo was 23 at the time it was painted and part of his contribution was the angel holding the mantle. The kneeling figure already shows signs of characteristics Leonardo would retain and develop throughout the rest of his career, particularly in the luminous tumbling locks of hair, the brightness in the eyes and the sweet look on the face. Even the tuft of grass at the angel's knee speaks of his later interest in all facets of nature.

Of the four figures in the painting this one angel is significantly better than the others, the rest being by Verrocchio (John the Baptist), Botticelli, Credi and various other students. It is said that after seeing Leonardo's angel Verrocchio never again wanted to raise a brush, humiliated at how an apprentice could be so much better than his master. This story is something of an old chestnut but may be true to a degree. It's known Verrocchio gained the least satisfaction from painting and had many other talents to draw on, like sculpture and metalwork. Possibly he was glad to be relieved of the job by a young genius joining his workshop and it was enough to have one good painter in the firm of 'Verrocchio and Co.' It's also true that this was Verrocchio's last known painting.

An x-ray of this painting showed that the original sketching Verrocchio did for Leonardo's angel was entirely different from the final result. This shows that even at this early stage he was freeing himself of his master's coaching to follow his own path. It's interesting to compare the two angels, Leonardo's playing close attention to the action, the figure looking quite natural and part of the activities. In contrast, Verrocchio's angel stares off into space with no interest in what is going on, he looks entirely bored.

Baptism Of Christ -- Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Baptism Of Christ by Verrocchio.
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The draperies on Leonardo's angel are rather stiff and hard. While learning his art Leonardo would make clay figures which were covered in linen dipped in more clay. This produced a curious system of folds and it is most likely these draperies were painted from drawings made using this process.

In addition to the angel, Leonardo retouched the hair on the second angel and contributed to the background by painting the area directly above the angel's heads. Verrocchio's style was very much traditional for the day; distant plains and hills with the formalised rocks and the occasional scattered tree, often with a somewhat plastic look. Leonardo's work already showed great originality with water, mists, sunlight and shadow.

The angel and Leonardo's part of the landscape are painted in oil; this was a new medium and at the time of this painting it had just been introduced to Italy. Verrocchio's portions of the picture are in the traditional egg tempera which produced a surface similar to enamel but demanded strict demarcation lines between colours. It was very typical of Leonardo to embrace the new medium while his master continued using the old.