A Sweet Briar College Learning Resource

H2O - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water

Water in Art
Professor Chris Witcombe


Water can bring about a spiritual transformation through a ritual of purification. In the same way that water washes away dirt from the body, baptism is understood to wash or purify the soul.

Baptism is generally regarded as the rite of initiation into the Christian church. Many Christians believe that baptism originated with the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. The scene has been represented many times in art.

(image source: Carol Gerten)
Piero della Francesca
Baptism of Christ, 1450s

(image source: Carol Gerten)
Andrea del Verrocchio
Baptism of Christ, 1472-75

Ritual washing or immersion in water, however, was already a very ancient and widespread practice before John the Baptist employed it as a means of initiating followers into his sect.

In the earliest known religious writings, the ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts (c. 2500 BCE), for example, water has both a revivifying and a purifying role. The text also show that during the embalming process the corpse was given frequent ritual lustrations (washings) to purify it from the contamination of death and to revivify it.

In ancient Greece, bathing in the sea was a purification rite performed as an initiatory ritual of the ancient mystery cult called the Eleusinian Mysteries.

There are numerous references in the Old Testament to ritual purification with water. In Exodus, for example, priests are instructed to wash their hands and feet before approaching the altar. Roman Catholic priests wash their hands in a basin, called a "lavabo", before saying Mass. "Holy water", specially blessed by the priest, is provided at the doors of churches for the worshippers to sprinkle on themselves before entering. Water is also sprinkled on the congregation by the priest at Mass on Sundays as a defense against evil forces.

Washing in water could also symbolically remove spiritual dirt and guilt. In the Bible, Pontius Pilate is famous for "washing his hands" of Jesus Christ.

(image source: Carol Gerten)
Mattia Preti
Pilate Washing his Hands, 1663


H20 - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water
Chris Witcombe and Sang Hwang
Sweet Briar College