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The scene depicts the account of Christ's baptism from the Synoptic Gospels:
And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: and there came a voice from heaven saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased' (Mark 1:10-11).
Our icon follows the traditional imagery already fully developed by the 6th century: Jesus stands in the river Jordan; John stands over Christ with a gesture of blessing; on our right four angels stand with hands covered with cloth - an ancient symbol of reverence. From above a ray of light descends from a cloud - symbolising the celestial realm - that contains the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The angels are included from the divine service of the feast day.
The traditions of the Church understand the event as the manifestation (epiphany) of the Holy Trinity on Earth, and the introduction of the sacrament of Baptism. The descent of the Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove echoes the iconography of the Annunciation, which includes the same pneumatological figuration.In the hymns of the fourth century hymnographer Ephrem the Syrian, these two crucial events are further connected by perceiving the river Jordan as a symbolical 'womb': 'The river in which Christ was baptised conceived him again symbolically, the damp womb of water conceived him in purity and bore him in holiness, made him rise up in glory.'Ephrem is here highlighting the spiritual stages of Christ's life and the different types of 'birth'. A few lines later Ephrem makes a similar connection:
The brightness which Moses put on
The positioning of Christ's figure in icons, as if he is in a large 'womb of water', and the radiant light that emanates from his flesh, can be seen as creating a visual expression of the ideas we find in Ephrem the Syrian.
The style of our version suggests that it was painted in either Northern Greece or the Balkans in the 17th century. A comparable icon from the Balkans can be seen below (fig. a).