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The Circumcision of Jesus Christ
Johan J. Mattelaer, Robert A. Schipper and Sakti Das*
From the History Ofﬁce, European Association of Urology, Kortrijk, Belgium (JJM), Department of Urology, Jeroen Bosch Ziekenhuis, Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands (RAS), and the History Committee, American Urological Association, Linthicum, Maryland (SD)
Purpose: We study the controversies manifested in religious writings, art, sculpture and music as well as the theological disputes surrounding the circumcision of Jesus Christ. Materials and Methods: Data are derived from relevant historical and theological articles. Results: Jesus Christ was circumcised as a Jew on the 8th day after his birth. Until 1960 the Catholic church celebrated the day as Circumcision Day. In medieval times the holy foreskin was worshipped in many European churches. Conclusions: Christianity never condoned the ritual of circumcision and established the sacrament of baptism in its place. Key Words: circumcision, male; Christianity; foreskin; theology
CIRCUMCISION IN CHRISTIANITY
esus Christ was born as a Jew and, thus, was circumcised on the 8th day after his birth. “And when the eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke, chapter 2, verse 21). Notwithstanding the fact that Jesus was circumcised, Christianity never accepted this practice. Although Jewish converts were allowed to be circumcised it was forbidden for heathen converts. As early as 43 AD no less an authority than St. Peter adopted this pro-gentile position. “And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended with him, saying, Thou wentest into men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them.” (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 11, verses 2 to 3) Similarly Paul wrote in his First Epistle to the Christians at Corinth (chapter 7, verses 18 to 19), “Is any man called being circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God is all.” This anticircumcision position was conﬁrmed at the ﬁrst Council of Jerusalem in 48 AD and a new rite or sacrament was created to take its place: baptism. The ﬁrst century of the new church was marked by constant theological and dogmatic disputes between Christians and Jews on this difﬁcult subject. The leaders of the early church were divided on the issue. In the Dictionnaire d’Archéologie Chrétienne et de Liturgie Father Henri Leclercq wrote, “The faithful quickly came to regard circumcision as an eccentricity, a bizarre and indecent act from which they felt far removed and to which they did not intend to submit.”1 Nevertheless, the practice of circumcision remained rooted in the Christian churches of the Jacobites in England and the Copts in Ethiopia. The Council of Florence in 1442
compelled the Jacobites to abandon the ritual and adopt the sacrament of baptism. Circumcision was henceforth regarded as a mortal sin.2 In Christian philosophy the spiritual circumcision of the heart triumphed over the physical circumcision of the foreskin. This was also the standpoint later adopted by Luther and Calvin. Until late in the 20th century January 1 was shown on calendars not as New Year’s Day but as the Feast of the Circumcision. The feast probably had its origins in Spain during the late 5th century. When Spain later submitted to the authority of the Western Empire and the Catholic church, the celebration of the feast spread throughout the rest of Western Europe and was included in the orthodox calendar.2 The Feast of the Circumcision was ﬁnally removed from the Catholic calendar by the Second Vatican Council in 1960. THE CIRCUMCISION OF CHRIST IN THE HISTORY OF ART AND MUSIC In light of this theological position it seems paradoxical that uncircumcised Christian artists created so many images relating to the circumcision of Jesus in painting and sculpture (ﬁg. 1). In Belgium alone there are no less than 54 listed works in churches, museums and public buildings relating to Christ’s circumcision, including paintings, grisaille, frescos, statues, altarpieces, stained glass windows and keystones. The icons of the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches also frequently contain circumcision images. In the area of music there are fewer works relating to the circumcision of Jesus, although mention must be made of the “Missa Circumcisionis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi” composed by Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679 –1745), a court musician in Vienna and Dresden. The original manuscript is preserved in the Sächsiche Landesbibliothek in Dresden. REPRESENTATION OF THE CHILD CHRIST IN MEDIEVAL AND RENAISSANCE ART
Submitted for publication September 1, 2006. * Correspondence: 1890 Via Ferrari, Lafayette, California 94549 (telephone: 925-639-5707; e-mail: email@example.com).
In Byzantine and Roman art the child Christ is always dressed. However, from late medieval Flemish painters until
0022-5347/07/1781-0031/0 THE JOURNAL OF UROLOGY® Copyright © 2007 by AMERICAN UROLOGICAL ASSOCIATION
Vol. 178, 31-34, July 2007 Printed in U.S.A. DOI:10.1016/j.juro.2007.03.016
CIRCUMCISION OF JESUS CHRIST In addition, the importance of the circumcision in the Renaissance lay in the fact that Christ shed his own blood. The blood was the proof of the incarnation just as it was a premonition of the Passion. What mattered was not the phallus but the wound. THE RELIC OF THE HOLY FORESKIN OF CHRIST In the Middle Ages every tourist was a pilgrim and every pilgrim was somewhat of a tourist. Pilgrimage centers like Compostela and great abbeys were major attractions, and sacred relics and shrines acquired huge importance. Good relics could attract pilgrims and bring revenue from great distances, and the religious orders were quick to exploit this fact. Understandably the greatest value was attached to the relics of Christ himself. However, this presented something of a problem. Most saints left their bodies behind on earth when they died, thus there was an adequate supply of bones and other artifacts. Skulls were particularly prized. However, Christ ascended into heaven in human form. This meant that the relic hunters had to make use of the parts of Christ’s body which he had lost before his death, such as his teeth, nails, tears, blood and, above all, his foreskin. This last item was particularly venerated and was known to the
FIG. 1. Gothic altarpiece panel in church of Sankt Wolfgang at Salzkammergut (Austria) painted by Michael Pacher (1430 –1498).
the Renaissance we see the Christ child completely nude and always uncircumcised.3 Although these painters must have been informed about circumcision because January 1 was a festivity day and they knew about circumcision in Jews and Moorish (Muslim) people, the Christ child was always depicted as uncircumcised (ﬁg. 2). One reason for this depiction is the change in theology. The ﬁrst Christians claimed for all the deity of Christ, while since the time of Augustine they claimed that Christ was perfect in divinity and in humanness, an actual God and an actual man, with a rational soul and body.3 A major reason for the Christ child not being shown circumcised must lie in the artist’s sense of the body’s perfection. Here artists would not infringe any more than they would deprive Eve of a navel, no matter what the learned might say.3 In view of the inﬁnite merit which Christian doctrine attached to the circumcision of Christ, the refusal of artists in the Renaissance to acknowledge its visual effect remains an unexplained puzzle. Erasmus includes circumcision among the Jewish customs on which “we cry shame” (excremur). Perhaps this explains why Christian Renaissance artists did not represent the physical effect of circumcision when the subject was a reverend ﬁgure such as David or Christ. Depicting the nude infant Christ at any age they willingly paid the price of inaccuracy to spare the reverend body the blemish of imperfection.
FIG. 2. Christ child completely nude and uncircumcised. Painting by Hans Memling (ca. 1435–1494), Memlingmuseum, Bruges (Belgium).
CIRCUMCISION OF JESUS CHRIST French as “Le Saint Prépuce,” to the English as “the Holy Foreskin,” to the Italians as “Santissimo Prepuzio” and to the Vatican as “Praeputium Domini.” The Spanish theologian and philosopher Francisco de Suarez (1548 –1617) expressed the opinion that “after its circumcision, the foreskin of Christ was recovered and kept with great care and devotion by the Holy Virgin Mary.”4 Another version says that Holy Mary entrusted it with Mary Magdalena, and she later brought it to Saint Maximin-La Sainte Baume in the south of France where she was buried. The Swedish Saint Brigitta had a revelation in which she learned that Holy Mary had entrusted the holy foreskin with Saint John before her death. Other versions tell us that the holy prepuce fell into the caring hands of the apostles and from there it went to their successors. It ﬁnally emerged after centuries when an angel brought it to Charlemagne at Aachen (Germany), while a last story says it was a wedding gift to Charlemagne from the Byzantine Empress Irene. However, these startling assertions fail to explain how the Dominican scholar A. V. Müller, writing in 1907, could list no fewer than 13 separate locations, all of which claimed to possess the sacred foreskin as their holiest relic.5 We have been able to extend this list to 21 churches and abbeys, which at one time or another are reputed to have held Christ’s foreskin.6 Charroux, near Poitiers, France. The most famous center of pilgrimage related to the foreskin donated by the Emperor Charlemagne, who in turn had received it as a gift from the Empress Irene along with Christ’s sandals. The relic was described by Calvin, “Even the foreskin was shown by the monks of Charroux, who as a proof of its genuineness, declared that it yields drops of blood” (Calvin’s tract, vol. 1, pp. 296–304). The foreskin of Charroux was declared the only real one by Pope Clement VII (1523–1534). Coulombs, near Chartres, France. This “Saint Prépuce” was famed for protecting women during childbirth. It was stolen in 1422 by the English King Henry V who believed it would help his French wife. The monks of Chartres were only able to recover it with great difﬁculty. Sancta Sanctorum at the top of the famous Scala Santa, Rome, Italy. This relic was supposedly brought to Rome by Saint Brigida. It was stolen in 1527 during the siege of Rome by Charles V and was only rediscovered years later at Calcata in the province of Viterbo. From that point Calcata itself became a new center of pilgrimage. The relic was known as “La Carna Vera Santa” (the True Flesh of the Most Holy). The reliquary containing the foreskin was carried in procession annually through the streets of Calcata until it was again stolen in 1983 (ﬁg. 3). To date it has not been recovered.7 San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome, Italy. In the early 12th century the holy prepuce was brought to Rome before Pope Innocent III. The Pope was asked to rule on the authenticity but he declined the opportunity. Antwerp, Belgium. In 1426 a fellowship was founded with the cumbersome name “The Fellowship of the Holy Foreskin of Our Dear Lord Jesus Christ in Our Lady’s Church in Antwerp.” A Flemish priest brought the holy foreskin to Antwerp after traveling to Jerusalem during the ﬁrst crusade. However, the foreskin went missing during the iconoclastic riots of 1566.4 Sainte-Foy de Conques, France. According to the Chronique de Conques, a not wholly reliable source, the umbilical cord and the holy foreskin of Christ were donated
FIG. 3. Reliquary for foreskin of Christ in church of St. Cornelius and St. Cyprian in Calcata.
to the abbey by Charlemagne. Both relics were kept in the same shrine, the “Capsa Magna.” It dates from the postCarolingian period and was believed to be a gift from Pepin of Aquitaine.8 Le Puy-en-Velay, France. During pilgrimages to Le Puy, the mother’s milk of the Blessed Virgin and the holy foreskin were carried in procession through the streets in a kind of Christian fertility rite. Clermont, France. It was to this remote town that Saint Austremoine, the patron saint of the Auvergne, brought the holy foreskin and 2 ﬁngernails of Christ’s right hand. Paris, France. Saint Louis, King of France, built the magniﬁcent Sainte-Chapelle to house his rich collection of relics, including the holy foreskin. Hildesheim, Germany. Calvin wrote, “When this little book (on relics, published in 1543) was passing through the press, I was informed of a third foreskin, which I had not mentioned, and which is displayed in Hildesheim.” The remaining 11 locations include Notre-Dame-enVaux, Chalons-sur-Marne, France; Abbey of St.-Corneille, Compiègne, France; Metz, France; Santiago de Compostela, Spain; Langres, France; Besançon, France; Nancy, France; Boulogne, France; Chalon-sur-Marne, France; Fecamp, France and Vienna, Austria. However, the Vatican became increasingly less supportive of relics and in 1900 threatened excommunication to anyone who spoke of the holy foreskin.
34 A THEOLOGICAL DEBATE
CIRCUMCISION OF JESUS CHRIST FEMALE MYSTICI AND THE FORESKIN OF CHRIST St. Catherine of Siena (1347–1380), 1 of the 2 female “doctores” in the Catholic church during the Middle Ages, was widely revered for her “bridal purity and devotion.” To symbolize her marriage with Christ she was reputed to wear the foreskin of Jesus as a ring on her ﬁnger.5 This was depicted by several painters such as Peter Paul Rubens (Museum of Fine Arts Houston) and Lorenzo Lotto (Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, Italy) as The Mystical Marriage of Catherine of Siena (ﬁg. 4). The Austrian nun Agnes Blannbekin (1244 – 1315) also led a life devoted to the foreskin of Jesus. She was obsessed by the loss of blood and the pain which the redeemer had suffered during his circumcision.5 On one occasion when she was moved to tears by the thought of this suffering, she suddenly felt the foreskin on her tongue. McGinn explains that in late medieval times the festivity of the circumcision of Jesus Christ was popular as a commemoration of the ﬁrst bloodshed of our savior.10 CONCLUSIONS Born as a Jew, Jesus Christ was circumcised, and was depicted as such in numerous paintings, sculptures and manuscripts. In the Catholic church Circumcision Day was celebrated on January 1 until 1960. However, Christianity did not condone the practice of this rite but changed it to a new sacrament, that of baptism. In medieval times the holy foreskin was worshipped in at least 21 Western European churches. Some theologians believed that to restore his perfect body Christ was reunited with his foreskin after resurrection before ascending to heaven. REFERENCES
Chebel M: Histoire de la Circoncision, Des Origines à Nos Jours (A History of Circumcision, from its Origins to the Present Day). Paris: Editions Balland 1992. 2. Maertens JT: Le Corps Sectionné (The Body Dissected). Paris: Aubier Montaigne 1978. 3. Steinberg L: The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, 2nd ed., Revised and Expanded. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1996. 4. Van Gilst A and Kooger H: Kruisen, Relieken en Wonderen (Crosses, Relics and Miracles). The Netherlands: Uitgeverij Aspekt 2002. 5. Müller AV: Die hochheilige Vorhaut Christi im Kult und in der Theologie der Papstkirche (The Most Sacred Foreskin of Christ as a Cult Object and in the Theology of the Catholic Church). Berlin 1907. 6. Mattelaer JJ: Circumcision in Christianity. In: From Ornamentation to Mutilation: Genital Decorations and Cultural Operations in the Male. Arnhem: Historical Committee of the European Association of Urology 2004. 7. Sorrentino F and Sorrentino M: Restoration of the prepuce. A historical review. Historical Committee of the European Association of Urology. 8. Gaborit-Chopin D and Taburet-Delahaye E: Le Trésor de Conques. Paris: Momum, Editions du Patrimoine 2001. 9. Heathcote W: Die Hochheilige Vorhaut (The Most Sacred Foreskin). In: Aus den Vorhaut Akten. Der Grüne Zweig 128, Hrsg.Werner Pieper 1989. 10. McGinn BM: The presence of God (part III). In: The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism, 1200 –1350. New York: Crossroad 1998; p 128. 1.
Throughout the centuries many theologians concerned themselves with the thorny question of whether Christ was reunited with his foreskin before he ascended into heaven. Some argued that Christ must have taken his foreskin with him to heaven. Finally a consensus emerged that the prepuce was not more signiﬁcant than the hair that had been cut from Jesus’ head, or his nails or umbilical cord. Pope Innocent III (1160/61–1216) decided not to become involved and refused to judge who was right. According to him only God would know the truth about such a delicate matter. Anastasius Sinaita wrote in Quaestiones et Responsiones (Questions and Answers), “We can be sure that he, having voluntarily submitted himself to the act of circumcision, will have kept his foreskin, so that it could be restored to his body following his resurrection, thus allowing him to ascend to his heavenly father with a perfect body, entire and intact.”9 Around the year 1150 Theophylactus made a similar argument that “It is useless to speculate what became of the circumcised foreskin. We need not question where the scriptures themselves remain silent. We can assume, however, that this body part, once removed, fell to the ground and made it holy, just as the water and blood which later ﬂowed from his sacred side also made the ground holy. We must conclude that our Lord preserved his undamaged foreskin and restored it to his body following his resurrection, so that he would once again become perfect” (Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 2).9 The early Christian church was clearly interested in the question of what happened to the foreskin of Christ, but believed that the answer to this question was not deemed essential to the spiritual well-being of the faithful. Nevertheless, during the 17th century the theologian Leo Allatius speculated (in an essay, De Praeputio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Diatriba) that the holy foreskin may have ascended into heaven at the same time as Jesus himself, and might have become the rings of Saturn, then only recently observed by the telescope.
FIG. 4. Mystical Marriage of Catherine of Siena. Ring of foreskin of Christ is on her left middle ﬁnger. Painting by Lorenzo Lotto, 1523, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, Italy.
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