In Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures and drawings, everyday settings, objects, and surfaces are transformed into ghostly replicas that are eerily familiar. Through casting, she frees her subject matter—from beds, tables, and boxes to water towers and entire houses—from practical use, suggesting a new permanence, imbued with memory.
This is one of the few paintings that I can conjure up in my mind’s eye, because I have had an intimate relationship with it for many years. I first saw it with my parents at the National Gallery in London. I must have been nine or ten years old. I remember seeing it again when I was in the sixth form, and later, when I was in my first year at Brighton College, a boyfriend took me to see his favorite painting, which happened to be this one.
When I look at the painting, I see that there is a quiet symmetry to it, which is one of the things that makes it feel like a silent painting. By symmetry, I mean in the way that Piero has constructed four “pillars” across the canvas—the angels on the left, the tree, the figure of Jesus, and then the partially clothed figure in the background. They give the painting a sculptural and vertical strength. It is almost like a building. To emphasize this verticality, the blue cords on the robes of the garments, about a third of the way up the painting, hold the image together horizontally. This is what draws me into this painting. I can see why this was seen as a masterpiece in early perspective.
The architectural quality of Piero’s work has certainly appealed to me. It exists in other works of his, too, such as the Flagellation and the portrait of Sigismondo Pandolfo. In fact, when I was making Ghost (1990), I had a postcard of The Baptism of Christ on the wall I was casting at the time. The composition of Ghost had to feel right, so I made a drawing on the wall—I was following some kind of solidity that existed in Piero’s picture. It was an intuitive reaction, not an intellectual one.
The Baptism of Christ has a very grand gold, but rather horrible, heavy frame on it, while the image in my Piero della Francesca book that I’ve had for many years shows it with two gold “crescents” on either side of the arch. The effect that this creates is to make you think you are looking through a window. Again, it gives a sense of architecture.
Piero painted The Baptism of Christ sometime around 1450, when he was in his early thirties. It was originally the center section of an altarpiece for a chapel of Saint John the Baptist in an abbey in Piero’s hometown, Borgo Sansepolcro. I always imagine it to be smaller than it is. In fact it is quite large—close to 66 by 46 inches, which surprises me each time that I see it. I wonder about this idea of scale—if this means it’s a testament to its intimacy, the way in which a painting can draw you in. I don’t think it’s to do with having often looked at it in reproduction. Things have the “right” scale in your imagination.
There is a harmonious relationship between nature and man in this beautiful naturalistic, dusky Tuscan landscape. You can just make out the town in the background, which certainly seems to relate to Sansepolcro but is obviously not a realistic view of where the baptism would have originally taken place. I find that interesting. There are parts of this composition that are a bit odd. For example, the three kings in the background are comparatively crudely painted; their reflection in the water is actually more prevalent than themselves.
The colors have dulled over five centuries, but they are still soft and alluring, rich and translucent. The angel’s wings are almost like butterfly wings. The rich and sensual way their cloth has been painted evokes materials such as velvet and silk. And there is a sumptuous quality to these materials. The blue and pink colors really shine out.
This painting may tell a very particular story, but Piero’s translation of it into a series of lines, colors, and shapes has transfixed me for more than thirty-five years.
I feel that there is a peacefulness to this painting, as well as a sense of piety—the bowl of the baptism resembles a halo. I would say that there is an eroticism, too. Jesus’s loincloth is suggestively transparent, and there is a strange figure in the background who is undressing and also looks very vulnerable.
This painting may tell a very particular story, but Piero’s translation of it into a series of lines, colors, and shapes has transfixed me for more than thirty-five years. Surely that must be a testament to a truly great artwork.