John’s baptism of Jesus is considered the formal beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This event declared Jesus’ connection with God, his purity, and foreshadows his burial and resurrection. These symbols of baptism are carried out in many churches today.
In the Sistine Chapel, Pietro Perugino paints an epic image of John baptizing Jesus. Crowds of people fill different areas of the painting. John preaches his message of repentance in the upper left area of the painting. His converts prepare for baptism in the mid-ground of the central area. John baptizes Jesus in the center foreground, with the dove of the Holy Spirit and rays of circle of God the Father flanked by angels above. Groups of onlookers stand to the sides of the painting. They are in contemporary dress, suggesting that they are patrons who supported the church and artist.
In contrast, Pierre-Louis Cretey evokes a mystical feel to the event, in his painting in the Vatican. He isolates John and Jesus in a column of light and smoke. The water of baptism is hardly visible, emphasizing an image of Jesus being sacrificed on an altar. Rather than masses of humanity filling every corner of the canvas, only John and Jesus are present. After solitary his baptism, Jesus was rarely alone. Often Jesus departs from the crowds that seek him out, only to find that there is another crowd across the lake or in the next to which he travels.
Before Jesus set out to teach, heal, and enlighten people, he went to a remote place for a period of fasting. During this time, the Devil approached him several times, tempting him to demonstrate his power and authority in various showy acts. Jesus realized then, and throughout the next few years, that such abracadabra tricks may arouse the attention of people, but rarely sustained their belief. Several times in his early ministry, when people asked for a sign or encourage him to perform a miracle, he retorted that his time is not yet.
Again in the Sistine Chapel, Sandro Botticelli uses a similar narrative technique to Perugino’s Baptism painting. Jesus and Satan appear in numerous locations of the painting, illustrating different parts of the story. Where they stand on the left side of the painting, Satan temps him to turn stones into bread, after Jesus has fasted for 40 days. In the middle of the painting, they stand on the crest of the temple, where Satan challenges Jesus to leap off and to allows angels to prevent his fall. Standing on the edge of a cliff, Satan offers him control of the kingdoms of the world. Meanwhile in the foreground, the town folk go about gathering wood and supplies for a sacrifice, foreshadowing the sacrifice of Jesus at his crucifixion.
The first miracle recorded is when Jesus turned jugs of water into wine at the wedding in Cana. The Borghese Gallery painting by Garofalo puts us at the end of a long table of guests. Jesus is seated to our left (we are thus on this right side). He turns, gestures toward the jugs of water, instructing the servants to pour these next. Nearby guests lean forward or turn abruptly to see what Jesus is doing. While being a great visual opportunity for artist — who doesn’t like a wedding photo — we are brought back to the central theme of relationship and union. Weddings are occasions when people set aside conflict, at least superficially. But, weddings are also times when we indulge our fantasies about how wonderful unions are, and maybe speculate on how long this one will last. The one orthodox Jewish wedding that I attended in NYC was the mostly lively & fun one that I spent an afternoon at.
To extend the relationship theme, Jesus rests at a well and talks to a Samaritan women. While early in his ministry, Jesus will later make a number of statements that his message will be taken to Samaritans and other gentiles. Jews would have usually ignored if not disparaged Samaritans. Jesus talks instead, and praises her for her faith. Christianity would be a message of inclusion, not exclusivity.
The Borghese Gallery has two paintings on this theme. The above image by Garofalo places Jesus, resting by the well, on the right, with the Samaritan woman about to pick up the jar of water on the left. She holds the water of life. Jesus is the Living Water. In this picture, Jesus’ followers congregate behind the Samaritan woman, appearing unsure and uncomfortable with Jesus talking to someone who is not Jewish.
The second painting by artists in the Cirlce of Domenichino sets the well and interaction in a vast landscape with the Samaritan village below. The woman has set her jar down. Jesus gestures for her to return to her village to tell others what she has learned.
A final depiction of the Samaritan woman is from a fresco in a catacomb on the via Latina. This 4th century image captures her gaze with only a few lines and in-fill color. While the picture that I found does not show us the rest of the scene, her eyes conveys connection. Jesus’ ministry is not about convincing people that he is right. Jesus’ ministry was about encounters that changed people’s lives.