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Art and Baptism: The Choreography of Visible and Invisible Grace

Ann Laird Jones

Rev. Dr. Ann Laird Jones is a Presbyterian minister (PCUSA), currently serving in her twenty-ninth year as the arts ministry director at Montreat Conference Center as she continues the conversation between arts and theology.

Instantly Jesus is not only connected directly to God but also to the community. Jesus brings God’s saving power to our level! Jesus knows God’s love exists in the context of community!

When I think “baptism,” the word “choreography” is not the first word I imagine.

Instead I think of my friend Gayden, who says second babies often walk down the aisle to the font because their parents have long given up on making the family baptismal gown fit.

I think of congregations holding their breath to see if the baby will wake up and cry when the water hits their universe, only to find their own faces wet with tears of joy. They can almost feel the spray of water themselves as the baby comes close, carried down the aisle.

I think of little Meri Douglas, who announced to the church as she spoke in a perfect stage whisper to her even littler brother Brooks on the day of her baptism, “I am so happy to be a Christian, because Jesus wants me for his child!”

I think of Creeden, baptized on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., a man led by faith to dare to speak the truth which cost him his life in a world where too many are held hostage by fear, by poverty, by inequality based on skin color or nationality or sex. Creeden, a young Black child, bears the seal of God’s eternal love. Will it be enough to protect him?

I think of Katherine, as she stands at the font exuberantly offering a bold declaration of forgiveness and pardon, as seemingly endless streams of water from a pitcher splash confidently into the awaiting baptismal font. For Katherine this visual corporate response to confession is the central act in worship.

I think of Jesus, teacher, healer, lover of justice, and seeker of children. Authority-defying, death-denying, and life-changing against all logic or expectation, Jesus is the one who moves past the darkness of death into the dawn of life, the one who steps into the waters of the river Jordan, feels the water, sees the heavens open, and hears the voice of God, “This is my Beloved Son!” This is the one who reappears at Easter, with love and grace and mercy and forgiveness in those outstretched, scarred hands and broken body. This is the one who makes every Lord’s Day the dawn of a new Easter.

I think of grace upon grace, beginning with one drop of water and ending with everlasting love.

But I don’t think of choreography when I imagine baptism, even though movement is at the very core of memory. A splash of water from the smallest, simplest baptismal font evokes the memory of huge oceans of grace, splashing at our heels and running down our faces. Understanding baptism as movement of Spirit and grace, rather than a list of words, puts history, tradition, ritual, and culture within the embrace of Trinitarian action and promise. Choreography, which means intentional movement, guided direction of movement, or attentiveness to movement, is the opposite of a static tableaux. Seeing and hearing and feeling the water of baptism in this way allows visible memory to yield invisible hope bursting forth in the collaborative grace of forgiveness. Exploring the relationship between baptism and choreography also invites us to a whole new level of engagement with illustrations of the baptism of Jesus throughout art history, which include choreographed, figurative arrangements of Jesus, John the Baptist, crowds, the hand of God, dive-bombing doves, and water, whether from the Jordan River or poured from a shell. Works about baptism also include nonfigurative, abstract portraits of water without end and contemporary, liturgical furniture design. Here, too, we engage these art objects through liturgical and theological choreography.

Certainly the choreography of baptism begins with three Gospel texts reflecting the baptism of Jesus:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’ (Matt. 3:13–17).

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1:9b–11).

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Luke 3:21–22).

The Spirit’s adaptive choreography continues in accounts of baptism from the epistles. In Acts 8:14–17 Peter and John, who had previously only baptized in the name of Jesus, lay hands on the believers in Samaria, who receive the Holy Spirit. In 1 Peter the baptism of Christ leads to the cleansing of the people, just as Noah was spared death in the flood. In Colossians Paul focuses on the very physical transformative story of God, visible and invisible, very God of very God. The dance between visible and invisible grace in the action of baptism becomes its choreography in the story of Christ and the church:

[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross
(Col. 1:15–16, 19–29).

The early, struggling church remembers the words of Isaiah, offering the promise of grace:

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you
and through the rivers, they shall not
overwhelm you (Isa. 43:1–2b).

They are compelled by Jesus’ vision for their ministry:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you
(Matt. 28:18–20a).

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b). God’s love is clear in this baptismal blessing, then and now: “I have called you by name, and you are mine.” My feet start moving, and my body feels a dance coming on. Here is the first dance of new identity and new beginning, the entry into the community of faith as God’s adopted and beloved children. Baptism says to a roaming people, “I will pour out my spirit upon you . . .” as the water is poured upon us, as the words of God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit are proclaimed, and we are sealed by the mark of forgiveness graciously given through Jesus Christ. The flowing, dancing waters of baptism are a visible sign witnessed and sustained in and by the presence of the community of faith, the body of Christ.

Close your eyes and imagine the way water spins in the air as it is poured or lifted up, a dance of invisible grace with a magnanimous twirl! Water is on the move throughout the Bible, a vital part of many narratives that splash into our sanctuaries as well. In the waters of creation, order and chaos dance a wild tango. Waters swallow up a world encased in disobedience but bring Noah and his troop of paired creatures to dry land. Waters of the sea between Nineveh and Tarshish are vast enough to hold a magnificent creature capable of swallowing Jonah, enabling him to continue his journey to Tarshish and the acceptance of God’s grace. Enraged, stormy waters of a usually calm Sea of Galilee threaten to drown the disciples and their boat until Jesus calms the waves with his touch. Water offers new life to an outcast Samaritan woman. Moving, flowing water is ever present in the salvation narrative. As Scott Halderman observes:

Water appears again and again in the story of our salvation. We come from water. We were made as the world came to be through the separation of waters, beside water teaming with life. . . . Water at the beginning, water in the middle, and water at the very end. Water for us to drink, for all to drink. Come to the waters, all who are thirsty, for the waters of life are a gift for all of us. Such is where this reflection begins—wading through waters towards the throne of God.1

With these images in mind, why separate baptism from the wide-open biblical choreography of water and Spirit? Why limit the space for baptism to a singular font, often hidden in a corner, pulled out rarely, only when needed? Why confine the waters of baptism to a little bowl, unseen, unheard, and untouched except by the hand of the one administering the sacrament? Word and Sacrament: one breath, one voice, one vision; reaching out with the waters of life for those who yearn for new life in Christ. Font cannot be severed from table and pulpit, nor can the action and movement of baptism be separated from the joyful whole of worship.

“Choreography” literally means the writing down of the movement, of the action. Choreo has to do with the chorus, in the terminology of Greek plays, and graphy means writing, or visualizing all the pieces at hand put together. Considering the baptismal act as the choreography of the Spirit helps us visualize invisible grace in the movement that brings font, table, pulpit, water, believers, nonbelievers, confession, forgiveness, grace, and identity into the same sentence. Baptism is the antithesis of quiet orderliness. It decries lists of words and incantations. It is alive to all the senses. It is as resoundingly loud as hilarious laughter and joy, as tactile as grace and forgiveness, and as messy as water showered upon the whole body. It is the moment in time when our name is sealed forever with the name and identity of Jesus.

For the early church, the celebration of the baptism of Jesus was considered to be even more significant than the celebration of Christmas. The baptism of Jesus was one of the three major feasts of light, along with Epiphany and the wedding feast at Cana. Kathleen Norris writes:

These are feasts of light because they illuminate God’s nature. . . . Baptism, then, is about celebrating the incomparable gift we receive as creatures beloved by God. Baptism is that big. . . . [It offers us] a God who is not limited by our understanding of baptism and what it signifies—a God who created humanity in the divine image and whose love for us is so great that it embraces a people, no exceptions. This God is beyond our understanding and our comfort zones.2

Norris, a poet and theologian, continues, setting the scene:

Imagine. The scene is set for a huge event. Jesus is about to meet John in the river Jordan, the site where Moses interpreted the Torah, Elisha received the spirit of Elijah, and Israel encountered freedom. Now this is the place where God appears. God’s voice rips through the heavens, loud, forceful, and real. Onto this wild, loud, joyful scene the Spirit of God descends in the form of a dove.3

Again, Norris says it well, “The baptism of Jesus is the event that allows the story to go forward into the community of those who follow him and become his disciples, those who will be known as Christians. It is that big.”4

The Italian painter and architect Giotto lived and worked in Florence in the late Middle Ages and is remembered for his stunning frescos (murals painted into wet plaster). Giotto is known for his techniques for creating depth in a two-dimensional image, which paved the way for perspective techniques developed in the Italian Renaissance. Between 1300 and 1310 Giotto painted a series of large frescoes for the Scrovegni Chapel.5 His Baptism of the Lord fresco, completed in 1305, is one of the very earliest and largest depictions of Jesus’ baptism. Gone are flat, stylized, predictable, bodiless figures and shallow perspectives of Byzantine art. Jesus’ body is not hidden under draped fabric. He is in fact naked, and looks very real and three-dimensional as he stands in water up to his waist. There are figures on either side of Jesus: three men on one side, and three angels on the other. Both trios seem almost motionless, pointing the eye toward Jesus, who moves in correspondence to a burst of bright light from above. The hand of God reaching down from the top of the picture plane is typical in Jewish and Christian art of this time and place. But Giotto has included the very face of God as well. Jesus, God, and John the Baptist form a striking triangle, moving us through the piece as we experience grace upon grace bestowed in shimmering beauty and wonder. Everything points to Jesus: the sharply contoured rocks and the directional gaze of the onlookers, who are perhaps disciples, focus our attention on the moment of Jesus’ baptism. The two men beside John the Baptist are Moses and Elijah, who will appear with Jesus later in the transfiguration, when once again the heavens open and God’s voice is heard. Giotto has set up a choreographed scene in which even the rocks participate, moving toward a single significant moment.

Giotto, Baptism of the Lord, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy, fresco.

Giotto, Baptism of the Lord, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy, fresco.

Giotto’s Baptism of the Lord is, of course, just one of many interpretations of Jesus’ baptism in church history. Theologian and art historian Kinga Lipinska offers further background about artistic renderings of the baptism of Jesus:

The earliest pictorial representations of the Baptism of the Lord were carved in stone, on Christian sarcophagi. Later, during the long Middle Ages, stone reliefs of this scene are found above church entrances or sometimes in the interior, always carved as fragments of broader Gospel narratives. Monumental paintings on walls, panels, or canvas become more common only in the Renaissance, once painting as a medium gains greater appreciation. A certain degree of parallelism can be drawn between changes in the sacramental practice of the Church and developments in the iconography of the Baptism.6

Whereas in the earliest years baptism was always performed outside close to fountains or rivers, later, perhaps because of persecution, baptisms took place in private houses or places of worship.7 Baptismal fonts started being built inside churches. They typically looked like cruciform pools of water, reminding the catechumen of the tomb and of dying to old life and rising to new life in Christ, as well as connecting baptism to the eschatological hope in the return of Christ. The kind of baptism John practiced, which the early church adopted, carried with it heavy overtones of death. The verb itself, baptizo, originally may have meant “to drown.”8 Some of the earliest baptismal fonts were made in the shape of a sarcophagus, symbolizing that the one baptized was being lowered into the grave as he or she went under the water. This cruciform shape allowed the catechumen to enter from the east and exit from the west. Sometimes these early pools were round, to symbolize the womb. Sometimes they were eight-sided, suggesting the eighth day of creation. Water gave the sense of being washed anew. The form of these early baptismal fonts shows the importance of physical and material space for early Christians. The functional objects used in baptism made a liturgical choreography, a dance, through death to life.

The journey from death to life is a clear theme in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The scene I found most memorable was the baptismal scene. In this scene hundreds of people of every age and description, all dressed in white robes, stream to the edge of the river to be immersed in the flowing waters. The film is set in 1937 rural Mississippi. The sepia-toned film focuses on the odyssey, the journey of three protagonists, Ulysses Everett McGill, Pete, and Delmar, who escape from a prison chain gang. Soon after their escape, they encounter this baptismal scene at the river. The sight is so incredible they forget all about running and hiding, captivated by the masses lining up to be baptized. Pete is so moved that he runs from his hiding place down into the river and jumps to the head of the line, where he is baptized. He implores Delmar to follow, as we hear this song:

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol’ way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way

O sisters, let’s go down,
Let’s go down, come on down
O sisters, let’s go down,
Down in the river to pray.9

What an unforgettable image! Who can hear these words and not imagine being part of the choreography with all those people moving toward the river, falling into that water, and being submerged? There is no sign of panic or indecision. All of the parts of this dance make sense. All the parts work together: active movement and initiation into eternal participation in the Trinity. Rowan Williams describes this movement: “If we stand where Christ stands, we are looking at the Father and are animated by the Spirit. We’re right in the middle of it.”10

But what does “it” look like? And how do we imagine a choreography of moving parts that never ends? Grace flows on forever. What if we dared to imagine, in what we see, hear, taste, and feel, the eternal restoration of the Holy City of God reaching to the heavens in the act of baptism?

The liturgical calendar does not give much space when it comes to the baptism of Jesus. We’ve only just seen the wise kings off on their way back to the mysterious places they came from when John the Baptist, fully grown after doing handsprings in Elizabeth’s womb just a few weeks ago, steps into the picture, telling of the one who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit. And then Jesus is catapulted straight into adulthood twelve days after birth as the heavens open up, the Holy Spirit descends, and God says, “This is my beloved Son! Listen to him.” Walter Brueggemann writes this about the timing of the baptism of Jesus:

It strikes me that these texts, especially in the season of Epiphany, are stunningly contemporary for us. . . . The ground for enacting jubilee in our world is baptism, entry into an alternative existence that is not beholden to the old orders of death. . . .[Jesus’] solidarity with humanity defines his ministry among the poor, the needy, the disabled, all those who wait for the gift of God’s rule that will override the way the world has been.11

The flowing waters of baptism establish the choreography of grace as central to the entire ministry of Jesus, for all the world.

The baptism of Jesus occurs in all four Gospels. Mark’s is the simplest. In both Mark and Luke the focus is on the relationship between God and Jesus: God speaks to Jesus with the words “Thou art my beloved Son.” While John is remembered as “the Baptist,” the one who carried on the old practice of ritual washing as a way to signal commitment to a growing messianic movement, the baptism of Jesus issues in a new dimension. This is My Beloved Son! “You are my son,” (Ps. 2:7)—these are the words used for the coronation of kings. “Here is my servant, . . . my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isa. 42:1)—these are the words that are linked to what it means to be a servant of God.12 In Jesus’ baptism, these are the words used for the moment when the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus and God’s voice proclaims the name and identity now intertwined in the act of baptism: beloved Son, the One who emanates God’s complete love forever, the king who will carry a bowl and towel, the servant who will wash the feet of others.

Instantly Jesus is not only connected directly to God but also to the community. Jesus brings God’s saving power to our level! Jesus knows God’s love exists in the context of community! In baptism Jesus joins himself to all humanity. John is reluctant to baptize his cousin. Not even the disciples are comfortable with the scenario. Yet there is a clear communal focus in this action, as uncomfortable as the crowd of onlookers may be. Jesus was baptized in the presence of community. Barbara Brown Taylor wonders if the church has ever been comfortable with the baptism of Jesus. She writes:

Nothing we do here is a private matter between us and God. Like Jesus in the river, this is something we do in union—in communion—with all humankind. . . . Whether we were carried in our mother’s arms, or arrived under our own steam, we got into the river of life with Jesus and all his flawed kin. There is not a chance we will be mistaken for one of them. Because we are them, thanks be to God, as they are us: Christ’s own forever.13

Our identity is sealed in the context of the body of Christ, the community of faith. By virtue of our baptism, we can no longer count ourselves as anything other than a sibling to the entire human family. We come up out of the water ordained to live fully for others. The water gives us a new vocation. With the baptism of Jesus, God is fully engaged with all humankind—not focused on one tribe, one creed, or one country. We follow the choreography beyond the sanctuary into all the world.

The artist Tintoretto was a part of the sixteenth-century Venetian school of painting. He worked in an experimental style of painting, using dynamic figures, bold colors, high contrast, and compositions filled with movement. His dry brush and glazing techniques added texture and depth of color, leaving visible brush strokes that made the painting feel as though it was still in motion or in process, like water flowing. Notable among his masterpieces is the six-year project which resulted in thirty-three major paintings based on biblical subjects in the chapter hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice. Tintoretto’s work could have been seen as dance: “His swirling compositions with their sharp chiaroscuro bring to a fever pitch the emotional resonance of these traditional Christian subjects.”14

In particular, we see this movement in Tintoretto’s painting of the baptism of Jesus, one of a grouping of thirty-three biblical paintings. The painting emphasizes the fruits of Christ’s baptism: newness of life, faith, hope, and charity. Unlike many other paintings of the baptism of Jesus from this period, which seem staged and more neatly organized, Tintoretto places the figure of Jesus at the center of movement, though not at the center of the composition. Crowds of people, streaming golden light, and billowing clouds twist around Jesus. Light pours from the sky onto the figure of Jesus, just as John pours the water on Jesus’ head. Onlookers remove Jesus’ old clothes and wrap a gleaming white cloth around him, reminiscent of the shroud he will leave behind in the tomb. The painting references three virtues gained through baptism: hope, charity, and faith. A figure holds a veil in the lower right corner with the words “Hope that is seen is not hope” (Rom. 8:24). A mother nurses her child, referencing the traditional iconographic depiction of charity. Those looking on with a clear view of John baptizing Jesus represent faith.

Tintoretto, The Baptism of Christ, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy, oil on canvas.

Tintoretto, The Baptism of Christ, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy, oil on canvas.

Tintoretto’s painting of the baptism of Jesus is about movement. Jesus is moving, the crowds around him are moving, the water is moving, and even the sky is a tumult of motion. Behind him we see crowds streaming towards him, similar to images from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Are these people merely curiosity seekers, spectators at an event, or is this a dramatic act of conversion? Tintoretto captures our imagination in this scene with soft, golden tones, through which a singular light shines on Jesus in the moment of his baptism.

How do we imagine the baptism of Jesus in our time? How is the act of Jesus’ baptism explored in contemporary art? Theophany is a visible manifestation to humankind of God’s presence with us. How do artists in our time visualize the invisible? The act of the baptism of Jesus, and any baptism, is a performative moment. In it, the very agency of God is manifested in the interaction between sign and seal, word and sacrament, confession and forgiveness. Too often we are subjected to images of dive-bombing doves, or a Caucasian Jesus in a nice clean white towel, or a whisper of water, which fail to imagine the complexity and depth of this act.

Victoria Emily Jones writes about contemporary icons and paintings portraying the baptism of Christ in her blogpost Arts and Theology: Revitalizing the Christian Imagination Through Painting, Poetry, Music and More, lifting up the work of several artists coming from the Orthodox tradition.15 In the works of three of these artists—Ivanka Demchuk, Sviatoslav Vladyka, and Jerzy Nowosielski—the focus is the moment of the agency of baptism. In addition to John the Baptist, the crowds, and the Holy Spirit, the water seems to be the dominant focus of the work, surrounding, supporting, holding, immersing, lifting up Jesus in the moment of his baptism. Life-giving water showering over us becomes the visualization of God’s all-encompassing grace. Moving water leads the eye around the composition in these icons/paintings. Jesus is submerged in the water of grace.

Ivanka Demchuk is a Ukrainian artist born in 1990. In her work entitled Baptism of Christ the water bubbles, falls, splashes, and practically jumps out at us. Through her use of ancient and modern technologies, including chalk gesso, the water jumps out of the painting, even as Jesus, John the Baptist, and the three angels/bystanders assume very traditional postures. Jesus in fact looks like one entombed, wrapped in cloth. Yet the water feels so real we almost feel the spray of the water on our skin as the water races around the whole of the scene. The huge waves could be the waters of creation, or the Red Sea crashing down on Pharaoh and his armies: in either case, the water pulls us into something huge taking place. There is no small bowl of water hidden in a font in Demchuk’s work.

Ivanka Demchuk, Baptism of Christ, 2015, mixed media on canvas and wood.

Ivanka Demchuk, Baptism of Christ, 2015, mixed media on canvas and wood.

Sviatoslav Vladyka, also a Ukrainian artist (1975–), is the founder of the Association of Sacred Art, working with artists, priests, scientists, and laypersons to preserve the great tradition of Ukrainian iconography. Vladyka uses tempera and gold leaf on board in his contemporary icons. In Baptism of Christ, water forms a blue circle around Jesus, reflecting the heavenly light streaming from the circle at the top of the painting. The face of John and the face of God form a protective embrace around Jesus, while the descending dove appears almost spiderlike, as if lowered toward Jesus’ head on a single thread.

Sviatoslav Vladyka, Baptism of Christ, 2016, acrylic, tempera and gold on board.

Sviatoslav Vladyka, Baptism of Christ, 2016, acrylic, tempera and gold on board.

Jerzy Nowosielski, a Polish graphic artist (1923–2011) who painted The Baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan, uses bold fields of beautiful color to depict the waters of baptism, with orange circles to indicate the presence of divinity. Onlookers stand distantly in the background. The Jordan River runs vertically through the painting, connecting the action of Jesus’ baptism to a seemingly endless sea of water at the top of the painting. It is John who baptizes Jesus in the middle of the painting, but it is the luscious watery squares of blues, green, and turquoise that call me into the scene.

Mark Rothko, an American abstract expressionist painter (1903–1970), is certainly famous for his later paintings that feature large squares and rectangles of color moving almost, but not quite, to the very edges of the canvas. Meaning was Rothko’s quest. His work reflects his desire for his viewers to connect with his deep emotions as the colors wash over us, spill onto us, and pull us into infinity.

But Rothko didn’t just paint large color fields, as we often assume. An earlier watercolor is titled Baptismal Scene, a series of doodles and lines that melt in and out of the background to create soft, watery depth. I have long been moved by Rothko’s work, and I found myself particularly drawn to this painting. Certainly, it stands out because it is so different from Rothko’s later work. But more than that, it captures the artistic choreography of Rothko imagining the baptism of Jesus. The painting twists and moves in lyrical movement and whimsical wonder. Here is not just the water splashing down from above, but continuing on in every direction, particularly under the surface. Here is efficacious grace, both visible and invisible—tumbling, moving, flowing not just above the water but below, where we cannot see it, but only imagine it. The watery depths seem to indicate endless activity. Creatures stretch and collide with one another. There is no distinction to the beginning or ending, surface or floor of the watery universe. Could this be the grasp of infinity, glimpsed in the moment of Jesus’ baptism?

Mark Rothko, Baptismal Scene, 1945, Whitney Museum of American Art.

Mark Rothko, Baptismal Scene, 1945, Whitney Museum of American Art.ard.

What about artists who use color, form, and movement to make work that may evoke the choreography of baptism for us, even if the work is not about baptism for the artist? Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011) discovered that if she poured paint onto an untreated canvas, the material created layers of color that moved out beyond the normal borders, engulfing the picture plane. The many hues of blue in The Bay give a sense of water spreading out in every direction. The artist was experimenting with the movement of paint on canvas. In this case the process used by the artist offers language about the motion and flow of grace as it happens in the act of baptism, and in the action of forgiveness, just as we see the motion and flow of the materials themselves.

Frankenthaler experimented with thinning the paint, pouring it onto raw and untouched canvas, discovering that the process highlighted the material’s fluidity. The movement of water inspired her. Though she isn’t directly referencing baptism, we might imagine the fluid movement of the waters of baptism as we view her work and imagine her process. Frankenthaler’s process recognizes loss of control of the paint as it rushes away from the center in every direction. Read through a theological lens, might this also remind us of the work of the Spirit in baptism?

French painter Henri Matisse spent the final years of his life using light as a visual medium to depict invisible grace. The Vence Chapel, his final masterpiece, was designed to be filled intentionally with limitless light. Marcel Billot writes that “it is like the primordial space quickened by the Spirit of God.”16 The light flows like water, giving the space a sense of transcendence through the heart of the worshiping community. The baptismal font, which is attached to the wall, looks like water splashing out into the room. Matisse, the choreographer of the space, figured out how to release light into the worship space that reflects the light of God, the author of the dance. This light reminds us of the light moving over the sparkling waters of creation, light glittering as we lift up the waters of baptism, and light filling every corner of our lives.

Henri Matisse, Chapelle du Rosaire, Vence, France.

Henri Matisse, Chapelle du Rosaire, Vence, France.

Erich Thompson is a master craftsman and theologian in Greensboro, North Carolina, who brings ministry and wood into the same sentence. He is the designer and builder of beautiful liturgical furniture. Thompson designs liturgical pieces that emulate each other. Font, table, and pulpit work together to become a center for sacrament, a dance with water, and a place for forgiveness.

Montreat Conference Center baptismal font, designed and built by Erich Thompson, photo by Ann Jones.

Montreat Conference Center baptismal font, designed and built by Erich Thompson, photo by Ann Jones.

Thompson believes the baptismal font should function on a daily or weekly basis, serving as the center of the action of corporate confession and forgiveness.

Our worship space must be designed to facilitate worship. In order to move in worship, we must have space in which to move. We have space in which to sit or stand, your choice. Our spaces have to be redesigned in order to accommodate movement. That won’t happen until the congregation arrives expecting to move.17

Recently Thompson has been designing and making new liturgical furniture for Massanetta Springs, a beloved, one-hundred-year-old Presbyterian camp in Virginia built around bubbling, natural springs. The font, the table, and the pulpit are all designed with imagery of dancing, splashing water. The springs have given life to the ecosystem for all these years, and now Massanetta will celebrate one hundred years living among these springs, as the sound of water outside and the sound of water flowing into the font inside dance together. The choreography of the natural world inspires our liturgical choreography as well. Erich Thompson takes wood, and creates movement, in the same way that liturgy takes words and creates the performative action of grace.

When we pour water into the font at the same moment that we proclaim words of forgiveness, we affirm and celebrate the experience of the good news of forgiveness and salvation through all our senses. Attentiveness to the design of the baptismal font allows for the choreography of the waters of forgiveness even as we are still lost in the language of confession. Cool, clear water poured from glass pitchers splashes and dances in the dance of forgiving wonder.

When I think “baptism,” I see people of all ages around the baptismal pool. I hear water poured into and splashing out of the font, and taste the spray of water in the air. And when I feel the spray of water in the air, I imagine Jesus coming out of the Jordan feeling the very same water touching the faces of the world with forgiveness, grace, and eternity. The source of the Jordan River is not a placid, smooth scene, but a series of rapids, water flowing endlessly, not unlike the waters seen in the photograph below. Imagine the baptismal fonts in our churches as the source of the Jordan, flowing on throughout creation, into the streams of grace flowing on forever through our lives. Flowing, natural springs offering the very waters of creation from the earth, dance into the Jordan River itself, and then travel on throughout time. Exploring the choreography of baptism invites us to see and hear and feel and taste the grace that flows through the very heart of our identity. And, as the choreography moves on, I find myself in the crowd around Jesus, hearing the words: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21–22). God’s words through Isaiah echo as well:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you (Isa. 43:1b–2).

Ann Laird Jones, Montreat Creek after Heavy Rains, video still, 2022.

Ann Laird Jones, Montreat Creek after Heavy Rains, video still, 2022.


  1. Scott Haldeman, “Wading through the Waters toward the Throne of God: A Liturgical Meditation on Baptism, Social Ethics, and the Future of the PC(USA),” Call to Worship: Liturgy, Music, Preaching and the Arts 46.2 (2012): 9.
  2. Kathleen Norris, “Marked for a Purpose: Isaiah 42:1–9; Acts 10:34–43; Matthew 3:13–17,” The Christian Century, December 25, 2007,
  3. Norris, “Marked for a Purpose.”
  4. Norris, “Marked for a Purpose.”
  5. The Scrovegni Chapel, located in Padua, Veneto, Italy, is now a UNESCO Heritage Site.
  6. Kinga Lipinska, From Giotto to Rubens: The Baptism of the Lord in Painting, Liturgical Arts Journal, January 9, 2019, giotto-to-rubens-baptism-of-lord.html/. This article is
    a part of the Talleres de Arte Granda, a liturgical workshop in Spain. Lipinska is a religious art historian, philosopher, blogger, and theologian.
  7. Ignacio Pena, The Christian Art of Byzantine Syria (Spain: Garnet Publishing, 1996), 95.
  8. John E. Burkhart, Worship (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982), 120.
  9. “Down to the River to Pray,” traditional, public domain.
  10. Rowan Williams, “Eastern Orthodoxy,” Christian Century 139, no. 9 (May 4, 2022): 26.
  11. Walter Brueggemann, “Wondrous, Inexplicable, Demanding Newness,” Sojourners Magazine, January 2010, italics added.
  12. Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), 51.
  13. Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 35–36.
  14. “Art of the Plague Saint: Tintoretto at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco,” Artifacts (blog), January 12, 2022,
  15. Victoria Emily Jones, “Contemporary Icons of the Baptism of Christ,” Arts and Theology: Revitalizing the Christian Imagination Through Painting, Poetry, Music and More, (blog), January 6, 2018,
  16. Marcel Billot, Introduction, in Marie-Alain Couturier and Louis-Bertrand Rayssiguier, Henri Matisse: The Vence Chapel: The Archive of a Creation (Italy; Skira Editore S.P.A., 1999), 29.
  17. Erich Thompson, in an initial phone interview with Ann Jones, April 25, 2022, followed by an email exchange on April 26.


Introduction – 56.2

Introduction – 56.2

The story of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 begins when an angel of the Lord calls Philip to set out on “the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza (This is a wilderness road)” (Acts 8:26). Luke does warn us, doesn’t he? I can hear the moody background music between the parentheses. This won’t be a story about the familiar baptismal font and rehearsed liturgy of Sunday morning.

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Naming God at Baptism

Naming God at Baptism

We want to know the name of God. It makes sense that religious people try to ensure that when they address their God in praise or petition, whether during rituals in the assembly or in the personal prayer of their hearts, they are calling on God using the right name. We want to honor the deity of our choice; we wish to stand within a hallowed tradition; we are glad to unite with others of our faith community.

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Naming God at Baptism

Why Baptism Matters for the Work of Dismantling Racism

Perhaps my favorite definition of the word sacrament is “the visible sign of an invisible grace.” Coined during the Council of Trent by Augustine of Hippo, the North African theologian on whose theology much of Western Christianity laid its foundations, it remains one of the most used definitions in both the Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant traditions.

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