Alinari/Art Resource

Three cosmic occurrences accompany John’s baptism of Jesus, as told in similar accounts in the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–22). In the first of these cosmic events, we see “the Spirit descending upon Jesus like a dove” in a 14th-century Byzantine mosaic from the Baptistery in the Church of San Marco in Venice. Above the dove descending toward the head of Jesus, center, the heavens open to reveal a star. The rending of the heavens is the second cosmic occurrence. John the Baptist, left, reaches out to touch the head of the young Jesus, half submerged in the Jordan River, which teems with fish. On the right bank, three angels lean toward the river where a human figure, probably a personification of the Jordan River, is buoyed by the swirling waters. In his left hand the figure holds a jug, a common attribute of ancient river deities.

Messengers of God, the angels may represent the voice of God, heard by Jesus at the time of his baptism—the third cosmic occurence reported in the Gospel accounts.

An axe lying next to the tree in the foreground to the left of John the Baptist is the artist’s allusion to a verse in Luke: John admonishes the multitudes who come to be baptized, urging them to repent. John warns the people with these words: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9).