This altarpiece was painted in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio for the church of San Salvi in Florence.
According to early sources, Leonardo contributed to the work, adding the angel on the left. He also seems to have repainted the body of Christ. The sculptural forms of the draperies and attentive study of the reflection of light in the crystals of the angel’s robe, together with the visionary landscape may also be the work of the young Leonardo.
According to the Gospels, Christ was baptised in the river Jordan by
John the Baptist during a general baptism of the people. When he came
out of the water he saw the heavens open and the Spirit, in the form of
a dove, descended upon him. God’s voice then spoke from heaven, “Thou
art my Son, my Beloved; on thee my favour rests”.
In Verrocchio’s painting, Christ stands in the midst of river Jordan, while on the right, St. John reaches forward to pour water over his head. On the opposite bank of the river, two angels holding Christ’s garments balance the composition. Above the head of Christ hovers the dove of the Holy Spirit and above that the hands of God the Father can be seen. The rocky landscape stretches away into the far distance behind.
Pictures of the Baptism were commissioned not only for the altarpieces of baptisteries and churches dedicated to St. John, but also by donors who shared his Christian name. The distant landscape with its views of tumbling cascades and pointed mountains shrouded in atmosphere are also likely to be the work of the young Leonardo, who may also have been responsible for the addition of oil glazes over the tempera paint of much of the surface of the painting.