The rite of baptism is central to Christian life, representing the cleansing of the human soul. Indeed, as set forth in a 1439 papal decree, "Holy baptism holds the first place among all the sacraments because it is the gate of spiritual life" ("The Decree to the Armenians," Council of Florence). Make baptism the subject of art projects to give as gifts to the newly baptised or as part of religious education lessons.
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The most directly symbolic artistic medium for baptism art is watercolour, because water is the means of the cleansing in the ritual. Watercolours are inexpensive and easy to find, and because they are so popular, even young children may already have experience using them. Unlike many other techniques, watercolour painting permits addition of layers, and the paint's relative transparency lets artists usefully outline shapes. Subjects with special meaning for baptism might include a cross, a dove or a scallop shell. Older and more adept painters can create more complex scenes inspired by Biblical stories, such as Christ's own baptism, or portraits of the person being baptised.
Ancients used salt to seal covenants, and in some religious traditions salt is placed in a baby's mouth at baptism; it also is used in certain Catholic purification rituals. "Salt" provides the root word of "salvation." Salt also can add a beautiful, textural element to watercolour paintings. Sprinkle salt onto a wet watercolour, and when the painting dries, brush away the salt to reveal a webbing of speckles. Use this technique to embellish any watercolour painting; even very young children can do it. A simple blue wash, with salt, becomes an interesting and lovely representation of cleansing water.
Scallop shells often are seen as motifs on baptismal fonts and vessels; this type of seashell is another symbol of baptism. Its simple, graceful lines make it a good subject for art, adaptable to different levels of expertise. You can also use real or model shells as part of the artwork. Paint directly onto the inner, smooth surface of the shell, creating a cross or other symbol, and embellish the edges with paint. When painting onto either a real or moulded ceramic shell use acrylic paint, not watercolours. With a drill and small bit designed for use on tile or ceramics, you can even put a hole into the top of the shell to create wearable art.
Art History: the masters
Because baptism is so important in Christianity, it has long been a subject of Christian art and remains so today. The baptism of Jesus Christ, in particular, is a favourite; art and culture websites have some examples, including works by Leonardo da Vinci. Even young students can study this artistic tradition. Ask them their opinions about how and why the different artists chose to depict the same scene. You can assign older, more adept students to copy these masterpieces, and then create their own versions of the famous scene being depicted.
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