Workshop of Jacopo Tintoretto, The Circumcision

Oil on canvas, 173 x 190 in. (440 x 482 cm.)
Lower Hall
Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice

Luke 2:21 says that Jesus was circumcised when eight days old. This was the requirement spelled out in Leviticus 12:3.

The painting's theatricality and richness of detail are thought to be due to the evolving taste of Jacopo's son Domenico (Nichols, 201). But much like his father Domenico expands on the usual iconography with a number of allusions to other traditions.

First, the iconography of the Circumcision is conflated with that of the Presentation and with contemporary Jewish practice. As in the Jewish brit milah there is a candle, the officiant wears a shawl, and the child is held on the lap of a seated person. But here the officiant accepts the child with his hands covered by a cloth, as Simeon does in the Presentation, and no knife is in evidence.

Second, the artist expands on conventions from Christian iconography of the Circumcision that associate it with Christ's sacrifice on the Cross and the Eucharistic liturgy that memorializes that sacrifice. The offerings on the small table refer to the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and the two men who lift the bottom of the shawl refer to the moment in the Mass when the acolyte lifts the bottom of the priest's chasuble to facilitate the elevation of the host. The host itself may be read in the flame, which is at precisely the height where it would be at the elevation. After the host is consecrated, the priest lifts it high for all in the congregation to see. (The two men are dressed as deacons. In Latin texts, deacons were customarily referred to as "Levites," the descendants of Levi who assisted the priests in the Temple.)

Finally, the virtue of Charity is conventionally personified by a woman suckling a child, and that is what we see in the left foreground. Above and across from her are two women who are dressed like her and like no one else in the image. These are most likely the other "theological" virtues, Faith and Hope. Access to these three virtues is one of the gifts that God gives in Baptism, which some commentators considered the Christian counterpart of Circumcision.1

To the right of the priest and deacons are several members of the Scuola that commissioned this painting. To his left are Joseph and Mary.

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Photographed at the site by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

1 For the exegetes on circumcision vis-á-vis baptism, see Glossa Ordinaria, V, 214-15. For the relation between Baptism and the theological virtues, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶ 1266. Tintoretto also uses a nursing woman to represent Charity in this Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes and this Baptism of Christ. For other examples, see this page and this page.