To the modern eye, a group of people bathing in a vat of blood evokes horror movies or violent occult rituals. Without the lens of Christian symbolism, Jean Bellegambe’s early 16-century portrayal of The Mystical Bath can even strike an educated Catholic as somewhat strange. But with a Catholic imagination and an eye for detail, any faithful viewer realizes that Bellegambe’s artistic representation allows access to otherwise unknowable spiritual realities precisely through the poetic representation of Christ, human figures, blood and personifications of the theological virtues. Just as the Incarnation of Christ made God knowable through the matter of his own body, the deep meaning of being washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb is made known by the hand of the artist through wood and paint.

Bellegambe’s work stands out as a particularly striking example of how art can communicate the divine truths of the faith. As the Sacred Paschal Triduum approaches, The Mystical Bath also offers a brilliant image of the liturgy, where men and women are in truth washed clean in the blood of the Lamb and nourished by his sacred body through sacramental signs.


Altering the Facts to Make the Truth More Evident

Unlike scientific prose, poetic representation alters realistic facts to make the truth of things more knowable. When Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players,” he was not speaking literally, but making a higher and more important point about the meaning of life from youth to old age. When a father calls his daughter his “princess,” he does not bestow upon her a royal title, but reveals how much he loves her. In each case something more true is made knowable by speaking poetically.

Similarly, scripture overflows with poetic language. The Book of Revelation says that the Church is the bride of Christ adorned for her husband, equating it with a city called the heavenly Jerusalem, then calling it the “wife of the lamb.” If an artist painted a picture of a city in a white dress walking down an aisle to marry a wooly animal, it would rightly seem absurd. When poetic representation is taken literally, it becomes an opaque thing which speaks only about its own irrationality. But when properly understood, it opens like a flower, intrigues us, and reveals more than it otherwise could.

As Cardinal Avery Dulles notes, “in symbolic communication, the clues draw attention to themselves. We attend to them, and if we surrender to their power they carry us away, enabling us to integrate a wider range of impressions, memories and affections” than simple declarative statements, or what he calls “indicative signs.”[1] To put it bluntly, “Where’s Waldo?” is much more engaging than “Here’s Waldo.” It invites the viewer to look, to search, to investigate and encounter his own thoughts, experiences and feelings along the way.

Bellegambe had to understand and represent the Blood of Christ in a similarly poetic way. Throughout scripture, blood is identified with forgiveness of sins, and Christ is called “the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood” (Revelation 1:5). From the beginning to the end of the Bible, blood is associated with God’s Presence and therefore redemption, justification, cleansing, sanctification, the new covenant, a new birth, peace, membership in the Church and, ultimately, salvation. In the Old Testament, blood represented life itself, and therefore in ancient Jewish worship, the blood of a sacrificed animal had to be poured as an offering to God, the author of that life, and it was never to be consumed by men.

But in a kind of spiritual jiu-jitsu, Christ poured out his own blood, making a perfect offering to God. Then in true generosity, he transformed blood from a thing offered by man to God into something given as a free gift from God to man. Moreover, it was made accessible in a way proper to human beings: sacramentally present in the Eucharist. No longer gruesome or taboo, it became a means of metaphysical cleansing and entry into divine life, all of which is aptly manifested in The Mystical Bath.


Poetic Realism

Born in Flanders, Jean Bellegambe is associated with an artistic school known as the Northern Renaissance. While Italian Renaissance artists emulated ancient Roman forms and privileged a mathematically-derived sense of three-dimensional linear perspective, Northern Renaissance artists chose to reveal the depths of reality in a different way. On the one hand, they showed meticulous observation and rendering of detail, but they also stepped out of rigidly consistent representation in order to emphasize the truth about the things represented. Figures may appear at different scales, for instance, with more important ones being larger than others. Similarly, objects may appear to bend or turn toward the viewer in illogical ways in order to show the viewer important aspects of the ideas the painting represents. In this way, the poetry of visual representation comes to the fore to lead the viewer to the truth the painting reveals.

Despite being frequently characterized as unduly harsh, the Dies Irae sequence used in the Requiem Mass contains the surprisingly tender line: “King of fearsome majesty, Who gladly saves those fit to be saved, save me, O font of mercy.” Bellegambe captures this concept precisely by centering The Mystical Bath on the crucifixion as a continuing reality which still affects the world. In an overt evocation of baptism and a baptismal font, the blood which flows from Christ’s side fills a golden tub ornamented with leaves and flowers, suggesting the paradise into which the bathers will soon enter. Small dragons crouch under the supportive feet of the tub, showing that the forces of evil have not only been defeated by Christ’s blood, but harnessed into the supreme cause: the salvation of souls. An orderly crowd of figures dominates the bottom half of the painting, with some already in the tub, including two notably repentant women. St. Mary Magdalene appears in the front left holding the jar of ointment which she used to anoint Christ’s feet, while St. Mary of Egypt appears behind holding three small loaves of bread, the only food she took with her to the desert in repentance after life as a prostitute. In a similar vein, the prominent and luxuriously dressed woman sitting in front of the font is not merely undressing to enter the bath like the others behind, but is taking off her jewels, a traditional representation of conversion from the luxuries of the world to the humility of holy poverty which accompanies repentance.

On the far left, a winged woman in red and green personifies Charity and helps a bather into the font. Under her feet the Latin word for charity, caritas, appears, and a star representing the fire of divine love rests on her head. Her counterpart on the right, who personifies hope, has the Latin word for hope, spes, under her feet and wears a ship on her head, an allusion to a longstanding notion of the ship as a place of safety which transports a person to heaven. Bellegambe depicts Faith, fides, on the viewer’s right panel, holding a candle while leading St. Catherine of Alexandria to the font. Faith, Hope, and Charity, then, together lead the faithful to eternal salvation through the redeeming Blood of Christ.


Painted Dialogue

In a theological tour de force showing deep understanding, Bellegambe included three banners in the top half of the painting with calligraphic Latin texts from the sixty-third chapter of Isaiah. Together, they read as a dialogue foreshadowing the victory of Christ’s blood. On the viewer’s left, an angel carries an inscription from Isaiah 63:1, reading: “Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson?”

In scripture, Bozrah was a city in the Edom region, mentioned in Isaiah 34 as a place where a great sacrifice had been offered to the victorious Lord on the day of his vengeance. So the prophetic question, “Who is this coming from Edom?” prefigures Christ, who offered the perfect sacrifice of his own blood as the true conqueror. Isaiah 63:1 continues with the Messiah’s response: “It is I, proclaiming victory, mighty to save.” The follow-up question from verse 2 appears on the banner of the other angel, asking with a sense of disbelief: “Why are you red in your apparel, your garments like one who treads the winepress?”—as if one stained in blood or wine could not be the triumphant messiah.

Christ answers this second banner in verse 3, written on the scroll above the cross: “I have trodden the winepress alone, and there was not a man with me,” signifying his suffering as the sole savior of mankind, abandoned by his followers in his suffering and death. The verse continues with the foreshadowed voice of Christ: “I trampled them in my anger and trod them down in my wrath; their blood spattered my garments, and I stained all my clothing. It was for me the day of vengeance; the year for me to redeem had come.”

Just as the work of crushing grapes would leave those in the winepress stained with juice, Christ’s “work” of salvation leaves him stained in his own precious blood. In his zeal to set things right in the world, Christ crushes evil and rescues man from the power of sin and death. In God’s time, then, the wine of salvation history had reached its perfect vintage, and the moment of redemption in his blood had come. This “time” is the age of the Church, when Christ’s redemption is available to every sinner in baptism and the Eucharist, skillfully combined in The Mystical Bath as a baptismal font, a wine press, and a bath in which to be cleansed in Christ’s own blood.


Ugly No More

With such a portrayal of blood, The Mystical Bath could easily be thought of as an experiment in the macabre. But in the sacramental worldview, the Christian mysteries are not only made known by signs that human senses can perceive, but are given in a way proper to human receptivity. Just as the Holy Eucharist offers worshipers the Body and Blood of Christ as a sacred meal without the least hint of gruesomeness, so Bellegambe’s painting does something remarkable: it takes away all sense of horrific bloodiness in a painting about blood.

The title of Bellegambe’s painting—The Mystical Bath—gives a nod to this sacramental transformation. The word mystical comes from the Greek word mystes, the same root that gives us the word mystery, mystagogy, and even minister as the one who dispenses the mysteries. St. Jerome famously translated mystery into the Latin word sacramentum, and so a mystical bath is a sacramental bath in which real matter is used and real mysteries are made present, but in an idealized and ritualized way. In that sense, The Mystical Bath offers a spiritualized reality and its high level of realism offers many layers of theological richness which fascinate the viewer, yet without evoking disgust and horror. Instead, Christ’s blood is made known to the spectator as something that cleanses, leaving the figures spotlessly clean, not covered in gore. In a sense, it becomes a sacrament of the sacrament of redemption, that is, it seeks to portray the mystery of salvation in symbolic terms, and thereby allows the earthly Christian to share in a profound spiritual reality. Poetic representation allows for the coexistence of both blood and spotlessness, an apt presentation of being washed clean in the blood of the lamb.

Dulles again writes that true symbols give knowledge of a “self-involving” kind, a knowledge which creates a “place to live” and allows the viewer to imagine himself discovering the possibilities of life. Furthermore, he argues, symbols have a “powerful influence on commitments and behavior” because they “introduce us into realms of awareness not normally accessible to discursive thought.”[2]

Insofar as Jean Bellegambe’s great triptych is symbolic, it offers more than what a simple treatise of theological propositions can provide. It allows the viewer to see himself entering the mystical bath, then urges him to make a surrender to God precisely because he has been captivated and invited into an attractive realm of spiritual beauty. The power of art and beauty, then, is not a dainty accessory to the Christian life, but provides the spiritual sweetness that calls us to join Christ in the victory of the Cross.


[1] Avery Dulles, SJ, Models of Revelation, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), 132.

[2] Ibid., 136.

Denis R. McNamara

Dr. Denis McNamara is Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, and cohost of the award-winning podcast, “The Liturgy Guys.”