The Baptism of Christ

Christ’s formal ministry begins with his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist, as told by all four Evangelists. The stained glass program at St. John’s does not directly show this event. Instead, we are shown St. John the Baptist preaching in the desert of Judea. The holy man stands on a rocky bluff in an isolated spot and preaches to a crowd. Though his mouth is closed, his raised hands indicate that he speaks the quote at the bottom of the window, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” (Matt. 3: 1-12; John 1: 23) The artist has interpreted the Biblical description of John’s attire “of camels’ hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins” as a plain brown robe fastened with a simple lavender-colored belt. Before the saint, on lower terrain, men and woman of all ages stand and listen intently to the holy discourse. An elderly man holds a staff in one hand and cradles his head in the other, a gesture that might indicate shame for past sins, for the Gospels tells us that many came to John to confess their sins as well as be baptized by him. The well-dressed man in the blue robe, gold shawl, red cap and full beard most likely represents the many Pharisees and Sadducees that attended John’s baptisms. To them, the saint replied, “Ye brood of Vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come.” In the background, as a sign of his humanity, Jesus comes from Galilee to be baptized by John. Just prior to the Savior’s arrival, John tells his audience, “he that shall come after me, is mightier than I…he shall baptize you in the Holy Ghost and fire.” Most narrative images show John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan rather than the earlier moment captured in the window.
The Gospels explains most elements of the window. Unusual, however, is the depiction of Jesus, who is diminutive, all white, completely surrounded by a halo of golden rays, and floating above the crowd. How do we account for this odd appearance? In Christian art the mandorla, the name for this form of halo, is usually associated with the Transfigured Christ or Christ in Majesty and thus indicates Jesus’ divinity. In the same tradition white skin, sometimes accompanied by white clothing, denotes death. Jesus’ mandorla and whiteness thus must signify his divine nature. The presence of the risen Lord in this scene reflects in an interesting way the final verses of the Gospel passage, which tell us that after Jesus was baptized, “the heavens were opened to him [John the Baptist]; and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him. And behold a voice from heaven saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’.” (Matt. 3: 17) God’s words underscore what John already knows: Jesus is the Son of God and thus divine. Rather than employ the customary iconographical scheme of John the Baptist, the Lamb of God and God the Father set against a landscape to denote the final verses of this Gospel passage, the stained glass artists simply used the mandorla and color white. The result is that several narrative moments—John preaching, Jesus arriving for baptism and God claiming Jesus as his Son—are economically condensed into one image and the two themes of the event are thus implied: the humanity and divinity of Jesus. Another theme is a linkage between Christ’s public mission, which begins with his baptism, and his glorious resurrection and ascension, implied in the mandorla.  One may wonder why this window is included here since it is the only New Testament scene in the stained glass program that does not focus directly on Jesus. Possibly Fr. John O’Brien or someone else connected with the Chapel had a special attachment to the John the Baptist. Perhaps the Lord’s words explain why: “Amongst those that are born of woman, no man is no a greater prophet than John the Baptist!”(Luke 7:25-28) John cries out to us to repent and decrease our pride. St John is the great herald preparing the way for the Lord just as the choir prepares our souls for worship.