Commissioned by the monastery church of San Salvi in Florence, where remained until 1530, the picture was executed in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, whose style is well defined by the figures of Christ and Baptist. The special fame of the work is however due to the Verrocchio’s pupil who helped him paint the picture: in the blond angel on the left and in the landscape above is in fact recognizable the hand of Leonardo, the very young Leonardo, present in Verrocchio’s workshop around 1470. Some critics ascribe the second angel to another young Florentine artist, Sandro Botticelli.
St John the Baptist baptizes Jesus by pouring water over his head. The extended arms of God, the golden rays, the dove with outstretched wings and the cruciform nimbus show that Jesus is the Son of God and part of the Trinity. Two angels on the riverbank are holding Jesus’ garment. The composition is attributed to Verrocchio, although there can be no definite answer as to which artist produced it.
There are Giorgionesque elements in the painting, and the contribution of Giorgione is assumed by some critics (in the angel in red at the left side). The painting is signed on the rock at the bottom: “IOANNES / BELLINVS”.
The Baptism of Christ forms the central section of a triptych commissioned by the treasurer of the city of Bruges, Jean Trompes. The wings show the donor’s family and patron saints on the inside, and the Virgin and Child and the donor’s first wife with St Elizabeth on the outside.
Nowhere does the artist demonstrate more clearly both his talents and his limitations. The present scene contains virtually no action. The kneeling figures of John the Baptist and the angel dressed in a sumptuous cope reveal a mutual correspondence in their approximate symmetry and subtly differentiated positions. The panel’s central axis is strongly emphasized by the figure of Christ, the dove of the Holy Ghost and the apparition of God the Father.
In David’s paintings the landscape forming the background to religious scenes takes on the motionless and precious look of something whose serenity opposes it to the tragedy of what is happening in the picture. One has only to look at the forest in the background of the Baptism of Christ, with its huge ivy-covered trunks, the strong rhythm of its escarpments and its foliage standing out against the blue of the distance. The still life of flowers in the foreground is characterized by a dazzling wealth of minute detail.
This altarpiece was at one time considered one of the best works of Memling. The study of its wing panels was rightly recommended to landscape painters as the work of a marvellous painter of foliage.
David was born in Oudewater in Holland, but worked mostly in Bruges between 1484 and 1523, where, in a manner of speaking, he became Memling’s successor. Two of his masterpieces, The Jjudgment of Cambyses (1498) and the Triptych of Jan des Trompes, belong to the Groeninge Museum in Bruges. In both works, Memling’s flawless precision and cool smoothness are combined with the anatomical realism and seriousness of Van der Goes.
The triptych with the Baptism of Christ, even though it was probably done after the Judgment of Cambyses, still breathes the quiet, ethereal atmosphere so characteristic of the Flemish Primitives. It is also one of the period’s most remarkable artistic evocations of landscape and flora. It was commissioned by Jan des Trompes, a leading civil servant in Bruges, who appears in the painting with his first and second wives (front and rear of the right wing). His third wife donated it to the Chapel of the Vierschaar tribunal in Saint Basil’s Church after his death.