Great Works: The Baptism of Christ (1448-1450), Piero della Francesca

National Gallery, London

The elephant in the room is a cliché, going on proverb. It refers to something that is enormous, obvious, unignorable – but that manages somehow to be ignored and overlooked. Deliberately overlooked? Carelessly? The phrase can imply either, or perhaps a bit of both. But whichever, the overlooking is culpable. The enormous, obvious, unnoticed thing should have been noticed. There are circumstances, though, when an elephant in a room is a welcome guest. Sometimes it is better for large and prominent things to stay overlooked. It's not just a matter of turning a blind eye to something unpleasant. There are situations where a big unnoticed thing is a positive benefit. It happens in art.

Piero della Francesca's The Baptism of Christ is a timely painting. Christians have long celebrated the baptism of Jesus by St John the Baptist in Jordan River at this time of year. Piero's arched image was originally part of an altarpiece in a church in Sansepolcro, his hometown in Tuscany. It has a characteristically rich and complex patterning. There is the ruling central vertical – the dove of the Holy Spirit, hovering wings-out and head-on, placed exactly above the trickle of baptismal water, which is exactly aligned with Jesus's divided beard, praying hands, navel. It's a vertical supported by the straight tree trunk next to him, and the overlapping, upstanding trio of angels. There is the contrast of Jesus's full-face against St John's perfect profile. There is the Umbrian hillside behind, with its veined landscape of greenery and earth. There is the sky with its streaked clouds, echoing the horizontal dove. There is the bending man taking his shirt off, making a "window" through which the more distant figures appear.

There are all these visual effects, and more, and they each have symbolical interpretations. But if you ask what is the single largest thing in the picture, it's something else: the foliage of the tree. That's the elephant in this room. Big as it is, we don't really notice it, as it spreads over the scene below, joining in with the curving frame (and the tree behind it) to make a protective arch.

Of course, art history has noticed it. It has identified it, from its beautifully painted leaves, as a walnut. It has explained that the walnut has a symbolic role in the sacred history of Sansepolcro. The walnut is also a symbol of Christ's crucifixion. But what art history won't tell you is the tree's place in the picture – or rather, its place in the viewer's attention. And the point is not that you should be paying more attention to this interesting tree. No. You we're probably paying it exactly the right amount before it was mentioned. Art history can be useful. Art criticism can bring things alive. But there really are artistic effects that are destroyed by being pointed out. Not being noticed is of their essence. This is one of them.

The walnut tree has a guardian power here. It's probably the dominant effect in the whole picture. But it draws its strength from being subliminal, peripheral. It works as an undercurrent, a corner-of-eye thing. Once it has been announced or (worse) analysed, it's dispelled. It's to do with the relative heights of Jesus and the picture itself, and the way the dove creates a "roof", a stop, so that our attention doesn't rise further. But the more you try how to understand how Piero causes this large thing to become largely invisible, the more you lose its force. The elephant is out. And I'm afraid the damage here has been done.

Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution