Theophany (the Baptism of Jesus) is one of the earliest Christian feasts dating from no later than the 3rd century. Originally, it was dedicated to the Incarnation, the Nativity and the Baptism of Christ; the feast’s celebration date was established as January 6. In the 4th century, first in the West, and by the end of the century in the East, the feast of the Nativity of Christ was celebrated as an independent festival glorifying the Baptism of Christ. Today the Nativity and the Baptism (also known as Theophany) are celebrated separately.
The iconography of Theophany is based on a gospel story of Jesus Christ being baptized by John the Baptist at the Jordan River (Мф. III, 13-17; Лк. III, 21-23; Мк. I, 9-11; Ин. I, 29-34). As Jesus was going out of the water, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the shape of a dove, and a voice from heaven said: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” Right at this moment there appeared the three persons of the Holy Trinity (Triune God), later called Theophany.
The baptismal scene shows the naked Jesus standing in the waters of the Jordan River. To His left is John the Baptist inclined to Christ and touching His head. On the right bank of the river stand three angels. Notably, while the Gospels say nothing about the angels, they appeared on the earliest Christian icons and were normally depicted in the right part of the icon. From the earliest times, above the figure of Jesus standing in the waters there was a depiction a dove - the symbol of the Holy Spirit – and the rays of the “Trinity light” descending from a segment of heaven. The 16th – 17th century Russian icons, despite the prohibition of church authorities to portray God the Father, often represented the figure of the Lord Sabaoth in a segment of heaven in a Theophany scene. Christ’s pose varies on various icons. While early icons represented Christ in a strictly frontal position, with the lapse of time, His figure was shown in slight motion, as if Christ is making a step. This has a direct reference to a Gospel text saying that “Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water” (Matthew, 3:16). This is exactly how the Ascension scene is painted on the St. Basil Gates (now Aleksandrov’s St. Trinity Cathedral, the 15th century), tablet icons from the Sergiev-Posad Museum and Novgorod’s St. Sophia Cathedral (15th c.). In almost all icons of the Ascension Christ is blessing with his right hand.
First images of the baptismal scene that appeared in the early Christian times (e.g. ceiling mosaics in the Arian Baptistry in Ravenna, Italy, 493-526) depicted not only the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan by John the Baptist but, above all, the presentation to the world of the Son of God as One of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, being testified by the Father and the Holy Spirit which descended upon Christ in the shape of a dove. In the early Christian monuments of the 4th – 5th centuries such as the Monza ampullae, mosaics in the Arian Baptistry in Ravenna, or a plaque from Archbishop Maximilan’s throne, the baptized Jesus Christ was portrayed as a young beardless young man. In length of time, however, the baptismal scenes, in accordance with the Church canons, represented Christ as an adult person.
Zhanna G. Belik,
Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.
Olga E. Savchenko,
research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.