Baptism of Christ, from Gospel by the painter Simeon of Arces by Simeon of Arces

Simeon Ardjishetsi

Baptism of Christ, from Gospel by the painter Simeon Ardjishetsi (Simeon of Arces), 1305, Manuscript illumination, The Matenadaran, Yerevan, Armenia, MS 2744, fol. 4r, Scala / Art Resource, NY

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This is My Beloved Son

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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.

 

References

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)


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