The Circumcision of Jesus: The Iconography

JANUARY 1
As a Jewish boy, Jesus was circumcised eight days after his birth (Luke 2:21). Typically, Medieval and Renaissance images of this event treat it as a type of the Eucharist, with the baby posed on a small altar. In the first picture at right he even stands on a paten. a gold or silver plate used for holding the bread during the Eucharist The circumciser will be pictured as a Temple priest, often wearing an episcopal mitre or the crown of Aaron (example), although the historical fact is that boys in Jesus' time were circumcised at home by the father or mother.1 The Eu­cha­ristic typology appears to be a feature only of images, not of patristic commentary. A few exegetes relate the circumcision to Baptism, but none that I have encountered says anything specifically about the Eu­cha­rist.2

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. Some images will import details from the medieval Jewish brit milah ritual (as in the second picture at right). In Garofalo's Circumcision of Christ, for example, one congregant carries the customary candle, Joseph holds the wine vessel, and the circumciser wears a prayer shawl.3 A neo-medieval high relief from 1895 is another example with candle, prayer shawl, and wine.

Sometimes a Circumcision image will include a basket of doves, as in the first picture at right. The doves can lead some viewers, and even some art historians, to confuse the subject with the Presentation in the Temple. In fact, the doves are present at the circumcision in the influential Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, chapter 15.

Prepared 2015-12-11 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2020-10-28, 2021-03-25.

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Luke 2:21 And after eight days were accomplished, that the child should be circumcised, his name was called JESUS, which was called by the angel, before he was conceived in the womb.

SHOWN ABOVE
A predella panel from the Triptych of the Madonna and Child, Poreč Basilica, Croatia. See the description page.

OTHER IMAGES

In this early baroque painting of the Circumcision the baby is on a dish shaped like the paten on which the host is placed during the Mass, and on one end of the altar is a ritual book on a stand, just as there used to be at Mass. The basket of doves held by the woman on the far left is mentioned in Pseudo-Matthew's account. The candle is a feature of circumcisions in medieval Jewry. See the description page.

A Jewish manuscript with a typical brit mihal. The baby lies on the lap of a man in a chair. The men on the right hold a candle and a small pitcher of wine. Source: Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons.

MORE IMAGES

  • 1460-70: In this German image of the Circumcision the High Priest sits with the baby on his lap. The circumciser wears a humeral for the ceremony.
  • 16th century: We also see a man in a humeral for the circumcision in this tondo.
  • 1520-30: Sculpture group from Antwerp.
  • 1587: Domenico Tintoretto's Circumcision for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco introduces allusions to Baptism and the Eucharist as well as references to the contemporary Jewish rite.

DATES

  • The Feast of the Circumcision is celebrated on January 1 in several Christian denominations. In the Roman Catholic Church that date is now the "Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God."

NOTES

1 Bloch, 9-10. In The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, ¶6 and The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, chapter 15, the boy is circumcised by Mary and Joseph themselves. This assertion is mostly ignored in the art, but Flora (145-48) notes one manuscript illustration in which Mary is the circumciser. Molanus (236) presents a vigorous argument against involving the high priest, adducing a number of scriptural texts and commentaries to show that Jewish children were circumcised by their parents and not in the Temple. Schiller (I, 89) agrees that in fact the rite was never performed in the Temple.

2 Cyril of Jerusalem (313-86) explained, "It was a custom on the eighth day to perform the circumcision of the flesh. For on the eighth day Christ rose from the dead, and conveyed to us a spiritual circumcision, saying, ‘Go and teach all nations, baptizing them’ (Catena Aurea, III, i, 78). Pseudo-Bede’s echo of that logic is on the same page. But the other commentators cited in the Catena say nothing about Baptism or Eucharist. Those cited in the Glossa Ordinaria for Luke 2:21 (V, 713-16) mostly ignore the baptismal connection, and none of them mentions Eucharist, although all agree that Christ accepted circumcision, as Nicholas of Lyra put it, "so that he could carry the burden of the Law and thereby set others free of that burden" (V, 714; my translation).

3 Today the term for the circumciser is mohel, but according to Bloch (ibid. the use of that term goes back only to the 4th century of our era.

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