In this manuscript illumination of the Baptism of Christ, Armenian artist Simeon Ardjishetsi (Simeon of Arces) uses bright colours, bold contrasts, and fantastical and ornamental details typical of the Vaspourakan school in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
St John the Baptist stands on a rectangular platform off to the left and leans over the figure of Christ, who is immersed in and partially visible through the blue and white waves of the Jordan River. Directly above Christ’s halo appears a dove, and to the right two angels fly downwards and reach towards him.
The scene is bordered by a rectangular frame and decorative ivy, as well as the hand of God, which reaches out of a cloud at the top, and at the bottom a coiled black sea creature, with jaws opened wide below Jesus’s feet.
In the Christian tradition, baptism is the rebirth into eternal life in Christ. The immersion in water is symbolic of death, and the resurfacing symbolizes rebirth. The water of life thus washes away sin and death. Old Testament figures such as Noah, Moses, and Jonah were often used to refer to and illustrate the significance of baptism through their stories of divine rescue from the devastation of the sea.
Likewise, in this illumination, Christ’s baptism is represented as a victory over a sea creature, symbolic of the devil, death, and/or hell. Jesus stands just above the creature, who lies upside down, mouth agape. With a twisting, serpent-like body and dragon-like head, it is highly reminiscent of the coiled sea creature spitting up Jonah so frequently depicted in early Christian art.
It is therefore possible that this image depicts Christ having been figuratively ‘swallowed’ before being ‘spat out’ in the symbolic death and new life of baptism. At the same time, the creature may allude to the vocal renunciation of the devil that catechumens undergo at baptism, or the more general victory over death that baptism accomplishes. In this case, the creature could be seen as not so much releasing Christ as being trampled by him, a subject with extensive biblical precedent (Psalms 74:13; 91:13; Isaiah 27:1; Job 41).
In either interpretation, this scene prefigures Christ’s own death and resurrection and is a potent evocation of the Sign of Jonah, by which Christ is understood to be the Son of God and the world’s Saviour.
Hakopian, Hravard (commentaries), V.H. Kazarian,and A.S. Matevossian (eds). 1978. ‘Simeon Ardjishetsi’, in Armenian Miniature: Vaspourakan [Madenataran, Mashtot's Institute of Old Manuscripts Under the Auspices of the Council of Ministers of the Armenian SSR] (Yeravan: Sovetakan Grogh)
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41The men of Ninʹeveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
16 And the Pharisees and Sadʹducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’ 3And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.
29 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Ninʹeveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation. 31The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32The men of Ninʹeveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.