The Baptism of Edwin. AD 627. Completed 1879. Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893). Gambier Parry method (see Introduction to the Manchester Murals. Downloaded and reproduced here from "Ford Madox Brown Murals" by kind permission of Manchester City Council. Commentary and formatting by Jacqueline Banerjee. [Click on the image for a larger picture.]

Though second in the historical sequence, The Baptism of Edwin was actually the first to be completed. A milestone in the establishment of Christinaity in the country, the baptism of King Edwin of Northumbria and Deira took place at York. However, Edwin's territory included Manchester, so this not unfairly stood in for the conversion to Christianity there as well (see Treuherz 118). Brown's grandson, Ford Madox Ford, justified the choice of subject himself, saying, "Instead of a set of provincial events commemorated narrowly, and having little general interest, we have a series of pictures shadowing forth the vicissitudes of a typical town during the various phases of the country's development" (331). Again, as with the Roman picture that comes first in the sequence, this fresco had its antecedunts, notably William Dyce's fresco of Ethelbert's baptism in the House of Lords, described by Ford much earlier in his biography as the "most refined and beautiful of all the frescoes there" (36), but also, as Ford explains now, "the Baptism of St. Oswald, from the series in the church of that saint in Durham a sufficiently appropriate connection, inasmuch as Oswald was a precursor of Edwin, and, like him, met his death at the hands of Cadwallader" (330). Ford describes the Manchester panel as, in conception, "one of the simplest of Madox Brown's pictures, considering its scale and importance," explaining,

Edwin, naked except for a waist-cloth, kneels in a stone baptismal font, whilst a priest pours the holy water over him from a bottle. Paulinus, with his right hand raised in the benedictional position, utters a fervent prayer, or perhaps the words Baptizo te. The Queen, who stands at a little distance, is also praying, with one of her waiting-women upon her knees beside her. She has her little daughter by the hand, and the child looks questioningly up at her mother, wondering what they can be doing to her king-father. The congregation kneels, half hidden behind the cloth thrown over what is, perhaps, the Communion railing. Their mental attitude is one compounded of mocking wonder and superstitious dread. A laughing mother holds up her naked baby that he may have a better view of the outlandish ceremony, whilst an old man, whose gouty limbs make kneeling a sad task, is most occupied with the disposition of his crutch, even though Baldur be come again. The Saxon warriors, young and old, refuse to bow the knee to the new White God. The little thurifers, after their manner, are not over-reverent behind the Saint- Bishop's back one of them laughs mockingly at the other, who can only keep his incense alight by blowing it. Through the small windows, hewn with an axe in the wooden boards forming the sides of the church, we catch a glimpse of the sky and of some old Roman remains, their graceful columns contrasting with the barbaric attempts at pillars upholding the little new wooden structure. (329-30)

Even this religious painting has its amusing touches, then, such as the inattentive altar-server with the censer, and the wide-eyed baby held up to witness the sacrament, but looking straight out of the picture. Just to the baby's left is a little self-portrait of the artist (see Treuherz 287), one of those not sure what to make of the proceedings. In his later years, Brown "became a confirmed agnostic (if not an atheist) before the term was invented," writes Angela Thirlwell (25).

Related Material

References

Ford, Ford Madox. Ford Madox Brown: A Record of His Life and Work. London: Longmans, 1896. Internet Archive. Web. 20 April 2012.

Thirlwell, Angela. "The Game of Life: Ford Madox Brown — A Character Study." Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer, by Julian Treuherz, with contributions by Kenneth Bendiner and Angela Thirlwell. Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer. London: Philip Wilson, 2011. 23-35. Print.

Treuherz, Julian, with contributions by Kenneth Bendiner and Angela Thirlwell. Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer. London: Philip Wilson, 2011. Print.


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Last modified 25 April 2012