January 9, 2022 Baptism of the Lord – First Sunday after Epiphany Lectionary Texts — Year C
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
It is perhaps too easy to focus our attention on the art and imagery of European Christians for theirs is an art of abundance and impressive extravagance. Christianity’s earliest visuals rise out of the Middle East and were greatly influenced by the cultures and religions present there.
For this Sunday’s texts, I have chosen an icon from Egypt’s Coptic Christian tradition. The Copts were actually the last generation of the ancient Egyptian culture and tradition. Ancient Egypt was of course one of the most artistically sophisticated cultures the world has ever known. When the Coptic people adopted the new religion of Christianity, they were quick to develop a visual style and iteration for their new faith and became highly influential in the development of Christian art across the centuries. Coptic Christian art, taking many cues from ancient Egypt, is distinguished by simple figures with especially large wide eyes. Note how John the Baptist is posed Egyptian style one foot ahead of the other, arms extended, body half turned to the viewer. The colors are bold and of high contrast. As the tradition grew, it incorporated elements from Islamic decoration as well. The frame of this icon is a perfect example of such.
Note the two crosses carved into the frame’s top. The Coptic cross is a known symbol throughout Egypt. It became a vandalous way to claim the ancient stone temples and structures for the the new faith. Crosses were zealously carved directly over the faces and figures of the Egyptian gods on columns and facades.
As typical in icons of Christ’s baptism, Christ is shown standing neck deep in the Jordan, or in this case, perhaps the Nile, Egypt’s long understood source of life and sustenance from the gods. Fish team around Christ symbolic of this living water. Christ stands on a dark serpent below the water – a symbol of his victory over death and Satan. It would also appear that at least one of the angels is spearing the snake with their staff. All angels are present to signify the worship and honor due Christ at this moment. I can’t quite see if the staff of the bottom angel is also spearing the enemy or stirring the waters.
A lamb watches on, reminding us of John’s words: “Behold the Lamb of God.” An thin long handled axe is found among the shrubbery behind the lamb, again a reminder of John’s words: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Of course we see the rift in the sky between heaven and earth from which the dove descends. I do appreciate the addition of brightly colored orange legs flung behind the dove as it dive blesses God’s son.
A common criticism of icon art is that it lacks proper perspective as was developed and perfected in Renaissance art. I recently learned icons were purposely designed for you to experience the figures and scene moving outward coming towards you – God is coming to meet you. Art with depth and spatial perspective requires you to move in to make connection – you must enter into the work.
What do you see?…
Do you find it easy or difficult to interact with art when the style is not realistic?
There is a beautiful expression of God’s tender love in the lectionary passages. What about this piece conveys that aspect of this baptismal scene?
How does the Egyptian perception of the Nile River as a source of life enrich your understanding of baptism? How might the incorporation of this insight be in itself an expansion of God’s family?