The baptism of Christ is described in all four gospels (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34). This event marked the start of Christ’s public ministry. It was a sign that he was both the promised Messiah and the Son of God. St John the Baptist performed the baptism in the River Jordan.
Pope Benedict XVI explained: “According to the account of the Evangelist Matthew (3:13-17), Jesus came from Galilee to the River Jordan to be baptized by John; indeed people were flocking from all over Palestine to hear the preaching of this great Prophet and the proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God and to receive Baptism, that is, to submit to that sign of penance which calls for conversion from sin.”
The pope went on: “What John administered was a penitential act, a gesture of humility to God that invited a new beginning: by immersing themselves in the water, penitents recognized that they had sinned, begged God for purification from their sins and were asked to change wrong behaviour, dying in the water, as it were, and rising from it to new life.”
He added: “For this reason, when John the Baptist saw Jesus who had come to be baptized queuing with sinners he was amazed; recognizing him as the Messiah, the Holy One of God, the One who is without sin, John expressed his consternation: he, the Baptist, would himself have liked to be baptized by Jesus. But Jesus urged him not to put up any resistance, to agree to do this act, to do what is fitting “to fulfil all righteousness”.”
The gospels imply that St John the Baptist and Christ waded into the river for the baptism. Afterwards, Christ came up out of the water and while at prayer, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove. Then, as St Matthew’s gospel says, “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” (Matthew 3:17)
For centuries, the Baptism of Christ has been a very popular artistic subject. Within churches, it’s usual to find the scene within the baptistery, the part of the building where baptisms are traditionally performed. This striking stone relief picturing the episode is found, as is customary, within the baptistery of St John the Baptist, in Brighton.
It was carved in 1835 by the noted Irish sculptor, John Carew, and originally served as the altarpiece of the church, which is dedicated to St John. This finely detailed scene shows Christ being baptised by St John, who is pouring water on his head from a shell. St John is seen wearing a cloak of camel-hair and holding a cross-shaped staff.
Christ bows his head in prayer as he stands within the river. The baptistery is lit from above by a skylight, which illuminates the image of the Holy Spirit descending on Christ as a dove. The design of the sculpture itself is in keeping with the overall classical style of the church.
See the full image:
Where to find this work of art
St John the Baptist, Kemptown
Read the relevant passage