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Theofania and its outworld capture in Christian art

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By Marina Siskos

Epiphany, the “festival of light” or “ton Foton,” is one of the most glorious celebrations for Christians around the world.

On January 6, Eastern Christianity celebrates the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, a landmark event in the life of Jesus. John baptised God to fulfill his righteousness. The baptism is believed to have happened in at Al-Maghtas, or Bethany, across the Jordan river, located in today’s Jordan.

According to the Scriptures, Jesus arrived from Galilee to John, his cousin and chosen by God to proclaim His coming, to be baptised. As Jesus was emerging out of the waters, the Heavens suddenly opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him.

God’s voice was saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am pleased.”

Therefore, most denominations of Christianity view the baptism of Jesus as a major event, and the foundation of the baptism rite.

In the western denominations, this day is commemorated one day in the week following the feast of the Baptism of the Lord and, in Roman Catholicism, the baptism of Jesus is one of the light mysteries added to the Rosemary.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is the feast of the Trinity. The biblical story of the Baptism of Christ is recorded in all four Gospels: Matthew’s, Mark’s, Luke’s, and John’s.

Epiphany is the day where purification and glorious justice prevails on earth and in heaven. Christians believe that, on the day of Epiphany, every remaining evil spirit or ghost on earth, takes leave, which is facilitated with the spraying of the homes, businesses, schools, and crops with the Holy water, “agiasmos.”

The Greek Orthodox church performs the “Great Blessings” of the waters, which is a ceremony performed twice, once inside the church, and the second, a liturgy in the open air and close to large bodies of water, be it a river, a lake, or the sea.

The ceremony is performed by the priest, surrounded by brave men and women, who jump to catch the cross from the freezing waters.

The lucky diver victoriously returns the cross to the priest and is then blessed by him. Later, the priest releases a white dove, which symbolises the Holy Spirit.

Illustration

The symbolic significance of the Baptism is great, with the purifying element of the water and the background illuminated, usually with gold or yellow hues. The symbolism of the light in iconography expresses the fundamental theme of “revelation,” as is sung in the hymn of the Feast: “Christ appeared and enlightened the world.”

The Baptism of Christ, from an Armenian Gospel Book, 1455. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

The narrative is uniquely translated in Christian iconography:

Commonly, on the left side, we see John the Baptist, dressed in camel hair, as he was a desert hermit. His arms are extended, in expression of prayer and reverence, directing others towards Christ. John is conducting the Baptism with his left hand.

At the top of the illustration, the Heavens are open, signified by a semicircle. The Holy Spirit is captured in the form of a white dove descending upon Christ.

Then, at the center, there is Jesus, standing in the water, occupying the most important dimensions of the icon, who is vested in a white waistcloth and blessing the waters with his right hand.

The Baptism of Jesus. Icon from St. Paraskeyi and Kyriaki of Souli, Marathon, 18th century. Konstantinos A. Benakis heritage. The Benaki Museum. The flowery patterns are influences from the Ottoman décor.
The Baptism of Jesus. Icon from St. Paraskeyi and Kyriaki of Souli, Marathon, 18th century. Konstantinos A. Benakis heritage. The Benaki Museum. The flowery patterns are influences from the Ottoman décor.

Opposite John the Baptist, the iconography usually depicts an angel or angels, with the heads bowing in reverence to Christ.

Illustrations of the Baptism vary among Christian denominations, but the central configurations of the Jordan river, Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Holy Spirit, often captured in the form of a dove, is hardly ever differentiated.

Iconography manifests this similarity, as the Baptism of Jesus, in the Greek Orthodox Church, has been one of the two occasions when all three figures of the Holy Trinity revealed themselves, at the same time, to humankind: God, the Father, speaking from the clouds, God, the Son, being baptised and God, the Holy Spirit, revealed as a dove, descending from the heavens.

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