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Work The Baptism of Christ

Department of Prints and Drawings: 14th-15th centuries

Le Baptême du Christ

RMN-Grand Palais - Photo Ph. Fuzeau

Prints and Drawings
14th-15th centuries

Grollemund Hélène

This Baptism of Christ is one of a very small number of drawings universally agreed to be by the master who signed with the initials E. S., an artist from the Rhineland considered to be the most important engraver before Martin Schongauer. The execution of this superb drawing suggests it may belong to the artist's first period (circa 1445-50). The same composition occurs again in two engravings, but with modifications and an abundance of detail that is not in keeping with the spirit of the day.

The Baptism of Christ . . .

The three versions of the Baptism of Christ have recourse to the same iconography: Jesus stands, almost naked, in the river Jordan; John the Baptist kneels on a projecting rock to the left and pours baptismal water on Christ's hair; an angel to the right holds Christ's clothing; the figure of God the Father and the dove of the Holy Spirit dominate the scene. This depiction conforms to the biblical narrative of the baptism of Christ found in all four Evangelists. While Christ was being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan, "the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him. And lo a voice from heaven saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3: 16-17). However, what distinguishes the drawing from the two engravings is the mastery of composition, which is clear and balanced, allowing air to circulate between the figures. In the engravings these empty spaces are filled with a wealth of details of which the master E. S. was fond.

. . . or the Holy Trinity?

The Christ, the dove of the Holy Spirit, and the figure of God the Father blessing are positioned exactly on the central vertical axis of the paper and are depicted frontally. God the Father, the dove, the upper part of the body of Christ, and Christ's downward pointing hands all form triangles. These emphases lead one to think that the artist wanted to represent the Holy Trinity as well as the baptism of Christ. This Trinity theory, which has been highlighted by Holger Jacob-Friesen, enables a distinction to be made between the drawing and the two later engravings, where the emphasis is firmly on the baptism itself, with Christ turning toward John the Baptist, and God the Father and the dove becoming secondary figures.

Konrad Witz, the Upper Rhine, and Rogier van der Weyden

The small areas of fine cross-hatching used to model forms here are similar to the technique used in early engravings by the master E. S., made some time around 1450, such as Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl or the Christ of Sorrows. The highly structured composition of the drawing and the harmonious equilibrium of the figures, which is absent from the later engravings, lead one to think that the master E. S. copied the work of another artist. Lili Fischel's theory that this drawing is a copy of a lost wing of a retable painted by the 1445 master, an artist of the Upper Rhine region, is supported by the closeness of the style to that of paintings by Konrad Witz and his circle. One could equally well propose a Franco-Flemish prototype, as has been done for Rogier van der Weyden's mid-fifteenth century Baptism of Christ from the St. John the Baptist triptych in Berlin.


Bevers Holm, in Meister E.S., ein oberrheinischer Kupferstecher der Spätgotik, cat. exp. Munich, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, 1986-1987, Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, 1987, notice 15.
Fischel Lili, " Le Maître E.S. et ses sources strasbourgeoises ", in Archives alsaciennes d'histoire de l'art, 14e année, 1935, pp. 185-229.
Fischel Lili, " Werk und Name des " Meisters von 1445 " ", in Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, Band 13, 1950, pp. 105-124.
Naß Markus, Meister E.S. Studien zu Werk und Wirkung, Frankfurt, 1914 (Europäische Hochschulschriften, Reihe 28, Kunstgeschichte, Band 220).
Shestack Alan, in Master E.S., cat. exp. Philadelphie, 1967, notice 83.
Holger Jacob-Friesen, Spätmittelalter am Oberrhein, cat. exp. Karlsruhe, 2001-2002, notice 46.

Technical description

  • Master E.S. (Upper Rhine, active circa 1440-67)

    The Baptism of Christ

    Circa 1445-50

  • Pen and black ink

    H. 29 cm; W. 21.1 cm

  • Saint-Morys collection; from the goods forfeited by those who fled the Revolution of 1793; placed on loan with the Louvre in 1796-97.

    INV 18838

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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