Journal of Geomancy vol. 2 no. 2, January 1978



by Paul Screeton with Chris Castle

A whispered “Paul must see the flying saucer picture” whist staying in Cambridge alerted me to the contents of the most extraordinary painting that I have ever seen.  A hurried viewing of The Baptism of Christ at the Fitzwilliam Museum persuaded me that here was a picture of mystical content and that the strange object casting light upon a memorable religious occasion could well be placed in the UFO phenomenon context.  It did not have to be an exact replica of the archetypal, supposedly extraterrestrial vehicle photographed in dramatic circumstances by the late George Adamski; the similarity to countless reports of alleged interplanetary craft and the curious juxtaposition with a highlight of the Christian tale was sufficient. 

But this was no psychedelic portrayal from the palette of the hip awareness of turned-on, tuned-in, dropped-out consciousness of the late 20th century visionary art.  The brushes here were in the hands of Aert de Gelder who died in 1727. 

De Gelder (Aert or Arent – both names are commonly attributed to him) is hardly held in high esteem by the art world, but maybe a re-examination of his work for content rather than technical expertise will prove profitable.  His work, however, is widely dispersed and seemingly ignored as far as published works are concerned.  The only book devoted to him is Arent de Gelder; Sein Leben Und Seine Kunst, which was published in Holland in 1914.  This work by Karl Lilienfeld does not seem to have been translated into English. 

As for his other paintings he was greatly influenced as a pupil by Rembrandt and continued his teacher’s style into the 18th century, giving it a rococo flavour by lightening Rembrandt’s palette and using violets and pinks.  He used oriental costumes in his Old Testament scenes with warm colour.  As for the New Testament scenes of around 1715 examples can be found in the galleries of Aschaffenburg, München, Berlin, Amsterdam, Birmingham (Barber Institute), Boston (England), Brighton, Chicago, Dordrecht, Dresden, den Haag, Melbourne, Paris’s Louvre, Providence Rhode Island, Rotterdam, Vienna, Vaduz (Liechtenstein College), and London (Dulwich). 

But what of the man himself?  He cannot be discussed in isolation, for his art is welded into the flow of the Dutch School, and the mystical nature of the picture may have been inspired by a special religious outlook. 

Aert de Gelder was a pupil of Samuel van Hoogstraten, and between 1665 and 1667 of Rembrandt van Rijn, whose manner he followed closely.  De Gelder was born on October 26, 1645, and died on August 28, 1727.  He was a portrait painter and also depicted religious scenes and tableaux showing oriental influence.  A few remarks are apposite to his position in Dutch art; his being a part along with many other {30} pupils and followers of what the American professor C. Van Dyke called the “Rembrandt Snowball”1.  At the time of Rembrandt’s painting, court and aristocratic patronage had disappeared and dealers were emerging to cope with the flourishing schools of varied and rich styles.  Specific commissions were rarer and works produced spontaneously had a ready market through dealers.  Nevertheless there was considerable competition to supply the market which led to a tendency of specialization.  Rembrandt had a high reputation at one point, which faded later, perhaps as a result of his leaving no written guides – being no intellectual nor theorist. 

In Rembrandt’s later works his technique is free and bold, and suggests an obsession to express a vision.  He had lost his former rapport with the public, who found themselves unable to follow him in his “profound search for the spiritual essences of the biblical subjects which increasingly occupied him”2

Rembrandt van Rijn was born on July 15, 1606, in Leyden, and is regarded by some to be the greatest Dutch master, supreme 17th century artist, and among the top three greatest painters of the European tradition. 

It is a speculative link of religious brotherhood between Rembrandt, van Hoogstraten and de Gelder which concerns us primarily, hence it is reasonable to sketch a few details of the prevailing religious climate within which their work was produced.  On breaking bonds early in the 17th century with Spain, Holland became a Calvinist nation, set apart from the Roman Catholic world.  Consequently this rupture was decisive for artists.  Previously the Church commissioned great numbers of new works covering large-scale treatments of religious motifs.  Calvinism, however, deplored the Roman Catholic display of religious paintings in churches, hence such subjects were only commissioned by private individuals for their own homes.  Religious art waned. 

But for Rembrandt the Bible continued to be the main source of material for his compositions.  And as for Calvinism, following his wife Saskia’s death and the entry into an asylum of a woman he took into his service named Geertje Dircx, he fell foul of the Calvinist church of Amsterdam regarding his relationship with Hendrickje Stoffels.  Their neighbours were upset by his liaison, but the couple failed to answer the summons.  The charge was repeated in July 1654 citing only the woman and on a third summons she was admonished.  Biographers deduced Rembrandt was not a member of the national church.  Furthermore, Filippo Baldinucci related that the artist had joined the Mennonite sect, “which is possible but not proven”3

One of his pupils was Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–1678), who had previously studied under his own father.  The Rembrandt influence in his drawings and some of his paintings is obvious, but his lively mind stopped his being a copyist.  A man who travelled widely, his art also covered several territories, such as landscapes, marines, animals and still-lifes. 

He caused a scandal in his native Dordrecht when he was expelled in 1656 from the Mennonite community to which he belonged, for marrying without the community’s approval and for wearing a sword. 

A scientific theoretician, Hoogstraten had pupils at various periods, including Aert de Gelder, and in his old age composed for their benefit an elaborate treatise on painting, Introduction to the High Art School, illustrated with his own engravings.  At one stage his study of optics led to his painting pictures producing uncanny visual effects4.  Contemporary judgement places Rembrandt on a pinnacle, Hoogstraten as interesting only for his optical effects work and de Gelder as a minor painter.  Indeed, market prices of de Gelder’s work reflect this conspicuously. 

Nevertheless one commentator has stated: “He was a fine colorist, fond of picturesque effects and had a broad and masterly touch”5

A characteristic of at least two of Rembrandt’s Biblical scenes is that “aerial” personages occur in the top left hand corner: a winged angel in The Sacrifice of Abraham and a floating figure in the Sacrifice of Manoah.  It may, of course, be {31} pure coincidence that Aert de Gelder placed his aerial object left of centre at the top of his picture*

There would not seem likely to be a metaphysical link between Rembrandt and his pupil, de Gelder.  In his major study of Rembrandt, Muller mentions several pupils of Rembrandt, but not de Gelder.  He notes that up to 1660 around 30 young men had been tutored by Rembrandt, each paying him 100 Guilders a year, plus a percentage of the cash their paintings sold for. 

There is a postulated religious link between Rembrandt and van Hoogstraten through the Mennonites, but this Quaker-type sect seems unlikely to have induced a mystical-style view of religion.  Consequently, we are left to examine the painting on its own merits.  Physically the canvas is 19″ × 145/8″ and the Fitzwilliam Museum catalogue suggests its date as c1710.  Marianne, Viscountess Alford (Lady Marian Alford) bequeathed it to Lord Alwyne Compton, Bishop of Ely, who donated it in 1905. 

I asked a Cambridge artist, Chris Castle, for his opinion of the work, and this is his critical commentary:

“It is twilight, a hilltop, a landscape stretches away, the slightly glowing outlines of two towns, then mountains beyond. 

“But on this hill top, a gathering of people in ancient dress gaze motionless, entranced at the scene taking place before them.  Two figures, the one kneedeep in water, head bowed, hands in attitude of prayer, stoops slightly towards the other who with outstretched arms sprinkles him with water. 

“Something momentous indeed has caught the attention of the surrounding onlookers.  The water and the two figures are bathed in a special kind of light, softly glowing.  High in the sky above hovers a greenish disk at the centre of which is a tiny dove with outstretched wings.  From that disk emanate four narrow rays which seem to travel down to earth penetrating the centre of the place/event below.  The rays seem both to support the disk above and to and to come down as a blessing and completion of the baptism.  But the rays themselves are painted in such a way as not to appear as light beams.  Perhaps some other kind of ‘light’ is intended.  The peculiar light quality of the scene is enhanced by the glow of the central event; indeed one feels the water to be charged with some spiritual energy. 

“The overall harmony of the painting is maintained throughout by de Gelder’s strict control of his palette.  The rulebook of his master Rembrandt is in strong evidence in his coloration and his handling of the paint.  The painting doesn’t break through any revolutionary ground on the technical level.  It is basically quite safely in the Rembrandt tradition.  But the subject matter and overall atmosphere created is so unusual an interpretation of the Baptism of Christ that the shortcomings of the painting technique are overshadowed and soon forgotten.  As Rembrandt’s later works were those which influenced de Gelder, the surface of the painting is loose and almost impressionistic in soft smudgy brushmarks.  No detail of importance emerges from either the figures looking on or the landscape beyond.  Both landscape and people function only as setting for the cosmic fusion of sky and earth spirits. 

“There is some doubt about the artist’s intentions regarding the distribution of land masses in the painting.  The Baptism seems to be taking place in water (the Jordan?) on a hilltop (a river on a hilltop?).  Maybe a dewpond is intended or maybe this is not the Baptism of Christ at all”. 

Assuming that there is a revelatory message in the scene as depicted by de Gelder we might consider a few aspects which appear to be relevant.  Firstly the disk in the sky is so tantalizingly akin to reported UFOs that it could be easily utilized to substantiate the tiresomely tedious welter of paperbacks in the “Was-God-an-Astronaut?” genre.  Uncle Erich von Däniken and a horrendous host of bandwagoners have quarried this strata and their banalities have devalued the mercurial link between the UFO syndrome and mysticism.  Central beneath the disk is a dove, and the Gnostics, regarded by Christian orthodoxy as heretical for their numerical interpretations, believed that “the divine spirit, represented {32} by the dove entered into Jesus, the man, at his baptism, while the Church held that the spirit and the body of Jesus Christ were indivisible, and looked forward to bodily resurrection”6.  This prophetic, rather than priestly, notion seems to be specifically pointed at in this painting.  It can be added that another disk object, the Holy Grail, is accompanied – as here – with beams of light and sometimes preceded by the flying in of a dove.7 Altogether hardly a Mennonite Brethren dogma. 

In UFOs from Behind the Iron Curtain pictures are reproduced of “astronauts” on the walls of mediaeval Jugoslavian monasteries, particularly in association with Christ’s crucifixion.  Also similar pictures have been identified in Russia and Rumania8

But our quest has been to delve into the inspiration of a Dutchman: the subject of the piece hanging in a corner of a sedate university city museum.  This has been necessarily only a speculative account of one man and an isolated creation of his, but I regard the painting as being an astonishing depiction of the inexplicable. 


1.  Van Dyke, John C.  Rembrandt and His School (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1923). 

2.  Sewter, A.C.  Baroque and Rococo Art (Thames and Hudson, London,1972). 

3.  Muller, Joseph-Emile Rembrandt (Thames and Hudson, London, 1968). 

4.  Wilenski, R.H.  An Introduction to Dutch Art (Faber & Gwyer,1924). 

5.  Champlin, John Denison, Jr.  (ed.) Cyclopedia of painters and Paintings (Vol.2, 1952). 

6.  Michell, John City of Revelation (Garnstone, London, 1972). 

7.  Crow, Dr W.B.  A history of Magic, Witchcraft and Occultism (Aquarian, 1968). 

8.  Hobana, Ion and Weverbergh, Julien UFOs from Behind the Iron Curtain (Souvenir, 1974)

* Editor’s note: In Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Ascent into the Empyrean, souls are seen being escorted by angels into a tube of light in the sky.  The focus of this tube is on the top left of the panel.  This is part of a series of four paintings which probably originated as the wings of two triptychs.  For further details see The Complete Paintings of Bosch by Gregory Martin and Mia Cinotti, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1969. 

The painting discussed in this article is still in the Fitzwilliam Museum, but no longer on display. – MB, December 2015