Posted by: Valentino Radman | January 8, 2011

Gyula Benczur – The Baptism of Vajk

I planned a trip to Zagreb today, in order to visit several exhibitions from which I was hoping to bring interesting photos and post them here. But, a couple of days ago I caught cold  so I postponed the trip for one of the following weekends. Instead of those photos, for my first blog entry in AD MMXI I chose this magnificent painting:

I had luck to see it in person at the exhibition Il Potere e la Grazia – I Santi Patroni d’Europa, in Rome.

There were a lot of amazing pieces, some truly spectacular ones (Tiepolo, Reni, Mantegna, Van Eyck, Caravaggio, del Sarto), but this painting – The Baptism of Vajk – by Hungarian painter Gyula Benczur (1844 – 1920) did take my breath away. I studied it for half an hour. The composition is great, the drawing perfect, the colors excellent,  but what stroke me most was the fluidity and utmost mastery of brush handling.

I can not imagine a human being can manipulate paint any better than that.
This reproduction, though good,  is very, very poor in comparision to original – which by the way measures 360 by 245 cm. One can not enjoy the contrast of thick and thin passages (particularly on yellow robe and on the shield which look as though it is protruding through the canvas), the brilliant rendering of the faces, the shimmering of robe, nor the  nuances in hue, value and chroma. Pay attention, for example to the way Benczur handled the details, like the gaze of the page behind the priests/bishops or the hand of the knight at the far right (note the reflected lights on the glove).

Benczur conceived a composition based on a cruciform, though not a perfectly centered one. That way he avoided that his painting (which – being vertically oriented and with majority of figures either standing upright or not moving) become a static, stiff and lifeless. Pictorial elements are arranged accordingly, which resulted in a picture space which is divided on four unequal rectangles. The upper left and the lower right  are painted in relatively darker values while the other two opposite rectangles are somewhat lighter. The verticals – major pictorial elements in this compositions are softened by a diagonal of Vajk’s red robe and several round, curvilinear and S-shapes and lines cleverly scattered throughout a painting.

(I’ll leave the rest of the formal analysis to the readers…it is part of the enjoyment of visual arts)


  1. That first detail picture could stand as a masterpiece on it’s own! Amazing how many great artists have been relegated to obscurity; however, the internet can deliver aesthetic justice!

  2. The way he painted faces is clear display of supreme mastery of the medium.

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