Nicolas Regnier’s “Baptism of Christ,” Church of San Salvador, Venice.

Baptism of Christ by Nicolas Regnier (1591-1667) in the Church of San Salvador, Venice.

Regnier was a Flemish painter, a contemporary of Caravaggio, who moved to Venice in 1626, age 35, and stayed until he died in 1667, age 76.

His Baptism of Christ hangs in a corner of the Church of San Salvador on Campo San Salvador a hundred meters or so from the Rialto Bridge. I visit this painting whenever I am in Venice.

Pride of place at San Salvador goes to an extraordinary Titian Annunciation. Regnier’s painting is off in the left transept, inconspicuous. That is fitting. It is a humble painting. I searched for a better image online and could find none. I snapped this not-quite-satisfactory photo on the fly in 2014 to remind myself of its beauty.

I visit this painting whenever I am in Venice. What I love so much about it has nothing to do with religion. It is the exquisite dialectic of masculinity and femininity between the two figures. Christ kneels in abject humility, simple and touching. I can’t think of another rendering of Christ that is both so boyishly innocent and sensuous. John the Baptist’s love is weighted with the sorrow of mortality. Their arms unite them in a cosmic triangular embrace. The radiance of love suffuses them, seemingly sourced from the shell in John the Baptist’s hand, from which flows endless grace.

This painting always moves me profoundly, where many more famous and highly regarded works don’t move me at all. One could quibble about the quality of the brushwork, I suppose, but there is no quibbling with its transcendent vision of human and suprahuman love, expressed through the tenderness and adoration obviously and palpably flowing between these two young men.

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