As a Jewish boy, Jesus was circumcised eight days after his birth (Luke 2:21). Medieval and Renaissance images of this event usually include a naked baby on a small Christian altar and a man with a knife, as above. Medieval commentators generally think of the Circumcision as parallel to Christian Baptism, but in the images the purpose of the altar seems to be to call to mind the Eucharistic liturgy, an association sometimes further suggested by items found on the altar such as a paten or a ritual book on a stand, as in the first picture at right.1
Beyond the altar, the knife, and the baby's nakedness there is not much iconographic tradition governing Circumcision images. Sometimes a High Priest wearing the "holy crown" of Aaron may be the one with the knife (example), but at other times he simply stands by in a bishop's mitre while someone else performs the ritual (example). Or there may be no one in the picture who looks like a priest (example). Mary is always present, but otherwise there is no consistency as to who attends the ceremony or who holds the baby during the circumcision.
After the Renaissance some Circumcision images strive to be more historical. In a 1717 fresco in Palermo, for example, the altar becomes a writing stand for a scribe on the left of the main action, the scene is outside the Temple (as it would have had to be in ancient times), and the priest's "holy crown" is inscribed with the sacred letters specified in Exodus 28:36-7. A high relief in Germany from 1895 adopts a neo-medieval style yet treats the subject as if it were a contemporary Jewish circumcision, with Mary holding the baby in a chair and a helper standing by with the wine required for the service.
Sometimes a Circumcision image will erroneously include the candles and basket of doves that are proper to images of the Presentation in the Temple. The first picture at right is an example.
Prepared 2015-12-11 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University
A predella panel from the Triptych of the Madonna and Child, Poreč Basilica, Croatia. See the description page.