Circumcision in
the History of Art


[The text page regarding history of circumcision has been withdrawn for revision]



Prehistoric Art, Egyptian Hieroglyphs and recent Primitive Art


Australian Aboriginal Cave Art

The oldest known depiction of initiation rites involving circumcision are to be found in the Cape York peninsular of Queensland, Australia. Many of these petroglyphs, drawn by the Ang-Gnarra people as much as 40,000 years ago, are highly stylised but leave little doubt that circumcision was an established part of their initiation rituals.

[Photo credit: Robert Scheer]
  Photograph
 
European Cave Art

Habitation of natural caves in southern Europe commenced during the ‘Upper Paleolithic’ period, before the last Ice Age. Some rock carvings survive from this era. The example shown below was found in the cave of Saint-Cirq in south-west France.

Cave Painting   Annotated image

Rock carving in the cave of Saint-Cirq (Le Bugue, France), depicting
a male with a disproportionately large penis and bared glans.


 
Whilst there are many examples from this time period of penises drawn, carved or painted with the glans bare, none so far discovered depict the act of circumcision. However, all but one of the collection of portable art phallic pieces shown here (right) give scant indication of any bunched-up foreskin behind the rim of the glans.   Photograph
Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs

The best-known Egyptian depiction of circumcision is to be found in the “The Physician’s Tomb”, built for Ankhmabor at Saqqara and dating to around 2400 BC. To the left, below, is a photograph of the original carving on the tomb wall and to the right a modern reproduction that faithfully depicts the hieroglyph ‘text’ as well as the images.
 


Egyptian Art   Egyptian Art



Dogon Tribal Art

Here we see a more recent example of cave art, painted by the Dogon people of the African state of Mali. This extensive mural adorns the entrance to their ceremonial circumcision cave. The oldest parts of the mural are almost certainly less than 500 years old.

The Dogon are an ethnic group who live along a 200 kilometre (125 mile) stretch of escarpment in eastern Mali called the Bandiagara Cliffs, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The precise origins of the Dogon, like those of many other ancient cultures, are held in oral traditions that differ according to the Dogon clan being consulted. Living as they do in near total isolation from outside influence, their culture is substantially unchanged since pre-colonal times.
  Cave Painting



Classical Art

It is clear that both the Renaissance and Baroque traditions often depicted biblical characters as uncircumcised, even though they must have known that the resulting portrayal was inaccurate. Here are some examples:

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475‒1564)

Michelangelo was inspired by classical models, but he would certainly have used a live human as the basis for the statue of David which was sculpted 1501‒1504. However, the artist wouldn’t have expected him to pose for three years! Drawings would have been made which would have been the guides for the subsequent years of work. Most sculptors built clay maquettes ‒ small scale versions of their sculptures ‒ though legend says that Michelangelo often sculpted direct into stone without maquettes. This may not be true for the statue of David, though, since the block of Carrara marble was second hand and a peculiar shape (having been abandoned during ‘roughing out’ by a previous sculptor) so the statue had to be very carefully designed to fit the stone. Thus his model would have posed for a few days while Michaelangelo made drawings and (maybe) a maquette, then the long labour of transferring it to stone would have started.

Some commentators have suggested that the depiction of David’s prepuce is in fact accurate, early Jewish circumcisions having removed much less tissue than became the case in/from about the first century AD with the development of Bris Periah. In the absence of contemporary anatomical illustrations showing exactly what Jewish circumcision removed before the adoption of a more radical style, it is impossible to pass definitive comment on this matter.
  Sculpture


Painting   Andrea d'Agnolo di Francesco di Luca di Paolo del Migliore
Known as Andrea del Sarto (born 1486 or 1487‒died 1530 or 1531)


The Sacrifice of Abraham by Andrea del Sarto was painted circa 1527, depicting the Biblical story found in Genesis 22:1-19. It shows Isaac as a boy of twelve or thirteen, who is not circumcised. The angel who stays Abraham’s hand is also a naked boy, much younger and also uncircumcised. In reality Isaac would have already been circumcised.

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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Known as Caravaggio (1571‒1610)


The Caravaggio painting shown here, which is one of his finest masterpieces, depicts the Madonna and Child with St. Anne. It shows a naked, uncircumcised Jesus aged about 7 stepping on the head of a snake and was painted 1605-1606. Yet, we know the baby Jesus was circumcised ritually at 8 days of age.

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  Painting


Painting   Giovanni Bellini (circa 1430‒1516)

The reluctance to depict a circumcised penis or the act of circumcision in classical art resulted in a tendency to obscure the genitals when the subject matter was biblical circumcision, as illustrated here in Bellini’s painting The Circumcision painted circa 1511.

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Modern Art

Jozua Hugo (South Africa)

Modern artists are more willing to depict their male figures as circumcised, as is shown here by the work of artist Jozua Hugo of Cape Town, South Africa.

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  Sculpture


Sculpture   Charles Ray (USA)

In 2009, the American sculptor Charles Ray caused a bit of a stir in Venice, Italy, by unveiling a commissioned statue ‘Boy with Frog’ depicting a circumcised boy. The same theme has previously been sculpted in bronze by another American, Edward Henry Berge (1876‒1924). Charles Ray’s version stands at the entrance to the Grand Canal.

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Robert Graham (USA)

The sculpture depicted here stands at the entrance to the site of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and is said to depict the American water polo player Terry Schroeder.

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  Sculpture



Acknowledgements

The following resources were used in the preparation of this web page:
USA flag (316 bytes) Journal of Urology logo Angulo, JC and García-Díez, M. Male Genital Representation in Paleolithic Art : Erection and Circumcision Before History : Urology 74: 10–14, 2009.
UK flag Logo National Gallery Workshop, London, UK.
Logo, New Age Travel Scheer, R. Aborigine Rock Paintings Illustrate Secret Ceremonies, published in Travel Writers Tales. [Accessed 10.Apr.2011]



Further material required for this page

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