On Jesus’ Circumcision

from “The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion” by Leo Steinberg
(Patheon/October 1983) (first published in the Summer 1983 issue of “October”, pp. 50-64)

On the eighth day following the Nativity, the Child was circumcised under the Old Law and given the name Jesus. So we read in St. Luke (2:21). And we read in St. Paul that baptism, superseding the sacrament of the Old Dispensation, was to be understood as a spiritual circumcision in Christ (Col. 2:11-12). This much is Scripture.

We have record that the Church Feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Christ was fixed for the first day of January from the mid-6th century at the latest. By this time, most of the major themes in the theological interpretation of the event have crystallized. Firstly, St. Paul’s typological parallel remains axiomatic; circumcision and baptism differ in outward form, but they agree in effect. The sacrament of the New Testament, as of the Old, is a sign – the sphragis, or seal, of a covenant between God and his chosen. In St. Cyril’s wording, the Christian faithful “like Abraham, receive the spiritual sphragis, being circumcised in baptism by the Holy Spirit.”45

The second main theme is due to St. Augustine. Where the Greek Fathers continued to interpret Old Testament circumcision essentially as a token of initiation into Abraham’s covenant with the Lord, St. Augustine declared it to have been an instrument of grace for the remission of Original Sin. “Instituted amongst the people of God . . . [circumcision] availed to signify the cleansing, even in infants of the original sin . . . just as baptism . . . from the time of its institution began to be of avail for the renewal of man.”46 It was this ruling which thenceforth prevailed in the West.

A third constant in Patristic writings is the Circumcision of Christ conceived as continuous with his work of redemption. Since the debt incurred by the sin of Adam cannot be met by Adam’s insolvent progeny and since Christ’s blood pays the ransom his Circumcision becomes, as it were, a first installment, a down payment on behalf of mankind. It is because Christ was circumcised that the Christian no longer needs circumcision. In the words of St. Ambrose: “Since the price has been paid for all after Christ . . . suffered, there is no longer need for the blood of each individual to be shed by circumcision.”47 In Mantegna’s great picture of the Circumcision (Fig. 62), the earliest monumental treatment of the subject and the most profound in conception, the solicitous gesture of the mother at right, averting her little boy’s face to spare him a painful sight, may also have this theological import — as if to say, “Not for you.48

Fig. 62. Mantegna, Circumcision, c. 1470.
[An essay at this site analyses this picture in more detail]

There is a fourth point. By conceiving Christ’s Circumcision as a type of the Passion, the Fathers made it a volitional act. Never did it occur to a Christian writer (or painter) to think of that operation as imposed on an unwitting child. Christ’s submission to circumcision was understood as a voluntary gift of his blood, prefiguring and initiating the sacrifice of the Passion.

And one final point. Patristic literature associates the timing of the Circumcision on the eighth day with Resurrection. Here the argument rests on the kind of mystical numerology we no longer take seriously, but it did formerly engage some great minds. The reasoning runs somewhat as follows. Seven is the number of completion and fullness, for the world was created in seven days, and is due to pass through seven ages. But if seven is perfect, then seven-plus-one is pluperfect. Eight, therefore, stands for renewal, regeneration — whence the architectural tradition of eight-sided baptistries. And Christ rose from the dead on the day superseding the Sabbath, on the eighth day just as the world’s seven ages will be followed in the eighth age by the General Resurrection. These notions attach themselves almost from the beginning to all theological meditation on Christ’s Circumcision. From St. Justin Martyr in the 2nd century to St. Thomas Aquinas, it is the sense of the mystery that the Circumcision on the eighth day prefigures Christ’s Resurrection, and thereby, implicitly, the resurrection of all. At the close of the Patristic era, the Venerable Bede (673-735) composed a classic homily “On the Feast Day of the Lord’s Circumcision.” His premise is, of course, solidly Augustinian. “You ought to know,” he writes, “that circumcision under the law wrought the same healing against the wound of original sin as does baptism in this time of revealed grace, except that under circumcision they were not able to enter the gate of the heavenly kingdom. . . .’,49 But Bede proceeds to draw an important conclusion. So long as circumcision was chiefly a token of initiation into Abraham’s covenant, Christ had need of it to qualify as a true son of Abraham. (Hence the lunette decoration above Mantegna’s scene of the Circumcision, Fig. 62.) But insofar as circumcision cancels Original Sin, from which Christ is exempt, he needed it not. A logical consequence never to be forgotten: the Son of God, says Bede, “submitted to circumcision as decreed by the law. . . . He who was without any stain of pollution . . did not reject the remedy by which the flesh of sin is made clean.” Why, then, did he submit? Firstly, says Bede, “that he might commend to us the necessary virtue of obedience by an outstanding example. . . . Likewise also he submitted himself to the waters of baptism, by which he wished the people to be washed clean of the filth of sin . . . undergoing it himself, not from necessity, but . . . to set an example. . . . Purification, both by the law and by the gospel, none of which he stood in need of, the Lord did not despise and did not hesitate to undergo.”50 It is this doctrine of the Circumcision as a painful ordeal, not due yet obediently suffered, that will enable St. Bonaventure, centuries later, to designate as Christ’s Passion his entire life even from its beginning. Bede himself ends on the familiar eschatological note — the circumcision as the type of that ultimate cleansing “from all stain of mortality.” We look forward, he says, to our true and complete circumcision, when, on the day of judgement, all souls having put off the corruption of the flesh . . . we will enter the forecourt of the heavenly kingdom to behold forever the face of the Creator. This is prefigured by the circumcision of the little ones in the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. . . . The time of this most longed-for entrance . . . is that eighth day on which the circumcision is celebrated. “Moreover the daily practice of virtues . . . Is our daily circumcision, that is, the continuous cleansing of the heart, which never fails to celebrate the sacrament of the eighth day so-called because it exemplified the day of the Lord’s Resurrection…51

Thus, by the end of the 7th century, and long before its emergence as a common subject of art, the Circumcision of Jesus in Christian thought has become manifold – initiatory, exemplary, sacrificial, eschatological. Nor can we grasp its psychological complexity without bearing in mind what Origen in the early 3rd century had called “the disgrace which is felt by most people to attach to circumcision.52 Origen here expressed an attitude held not only by ancient pagans, but traditionally endemic in Christendom – Erasmus includes circumcision among the Jewish customs on which “we cry shame.53 Perhaps this explains why Christian artists did not represent the physical effect of circumcision when the subject was a revered figure, David or Christ. They resisted the mark of it as an imperfection: and as we read in the fourteenth Epistle of St. Jerome, “when anything is made less, it cannot be called perfect.54 It is on this note that St. Bernard (12th century) begins his first Sermon on the Circumcision. Already diminished by assuming our flesh, Christ further lessens himself by receiving the circumcision. God’s Son had abased himself one degree beneath the angels in taking on human nature, and this day, by accepting the remedy for our corruption, he descends a thousand times lower still.

In an impassioned apostrophe, designed to confirm the conclusion already reached four centuries earlier by Bede, Bernard demands: How could circumcision have been needful to thee, who hadst neither committed sin, nor contracted its stains? . . . Is the physic, then, for him who ails not? Is it the physician in lieu of the patient who requires the medicine?

He speculates: He might, without difficulty, have preserved his flesh in its integrity, he who had issued without doing injury from a virginal womb. It would not have been hard for the Child to repel from his body the wound of the circumcision, since even in death, he easily kept it free from corruption.55

This and much else in the sermon is Bernardine rhetoric. But in what follows, Bernard makes an original contribution of far-reaching consequence to our subject — indeed, to the one subject worthiest of a Christian Doctor’s vocation: the discovery within Scripture of ever-new proof that God became man. Bernard discerns, apparently for the first time, a necessary relation between the two events celebrated on January 1; and perceives that their correlation precisely reflects the union of godhead with human nature. Citing St. Luke’s account that the Child, on the day of its circumcision, received the name ordained by the angel of the Annunciation-the name Yeshua interpreted as “salvation” — Bernard exclaims: Great and marvellous mystery! The Child is circumcised and is called Jesus. What connection is there between these two things. . . But in this you may recognize him who comes to be mediator between God and man. . . . The circumcision is proof of the true humanity he has assumed, while the name given to him reveals . . . his majesty. He is circumcised as a true son of Abraham, he is called Jesus as a true Son of God.56

“Proof of his true humanity.” In Bernard’s vision of the redemptive scheme, the Circumcision has become crucial. It bears the incarnate God’s answer to humanity’s prayer — as we learn by considering this other Bernardine text, wherein is described mankind’s desolation before the advent of Christ. There lived in those days, says the preacher, good men of faith. But though they had the assurances of the Prophets, they languished and “longed for the more powerful assurance that only ~Christ’s] human presence could convev. Bernard represents them as pleading: “If the mediator is to be acceptable to both parties . . . then let him who is God’s Son become man, let him become the Son of Man. . . . When I come to recognize that he is truly mine, then I shall feel secure in welcoming the Son of God as mediator. Not even a shadow of mistrust can then exist, for after all he is . . . my own flesh.”

The “shadow of mistrust,” the vestige of unbelief that could have thwarted the boon of the Incarnation itself, lifts at the God-man’s bleeding in his Circumcision. Those first oozings guarantee Christ’s humanity; they are his credentials as acceptable champion — proof incontrovertible that the Incarnation was real.57

We must add a few words from St. Thomas Aquinas. His departures from St. Augustine, and from his contemporary St. Bonaventure, need not concern us, but he does, as usual, set out the entire tradition-dropping nothing and adding much. Moreover, Renaissance Rome honored him bevond any other medieval figure, and his expositions became quasi-canonic at the papal curia long before they were declared normative for the Church.58

Discussing the Old Testament rite of the circumcision, Thomas adduces three reasons for the choice of the member circumcised, and two for the choice of the day: There are three reasons which justify the circumcision of the organ of generation. First, because it was a sign of that faith by which

Abraham believed that the Christ would be born of his seed. Second, because it was a remedy for original sin which is transmitted through the act of generation. Third, because it was ordered to the diminishing of fleshly concupiscence which thrives principally in those organs because of the intensity of venereal pleasure.59

As for the choice of the day, there are, says Thomas, “two reasons for fixing the eighth day for circumcision.” The literal reason is “the delicate condition of the infant before the eighth day” and its increasing sturdiness thereafter, which arouses a corresponding increase in parental love, and with it a growing reluctance to subject it to so grim an ordeal. But the figurative reason for the choice of the day points, he says, to “the following mystery: that in the eighth period of time, the time of the resurrection, on the eighth day, spiritual circumcision will be accomplished by Christ.

Finally, when Thomas sets forth the reasons “why Christ should have been circumcised,” he finds not one, two, or three reasons, but seven:

First, to show the reality of his human flesh against the Manichee who taught that he had a body which was merely appearance; against Apollinarius who said that the body of Christ was consub stantial with his divinity; and against Valentinus who taught that Christ brought his body from heaven.
Second, to show approval of circumcision which God of old had instituted.

Third, to prove that he was of the stock of Abraham who received the command about circumcision as a sign of the faith which he had in Christ.

Fourth, to deprive the Jews of a pretext for not receiving him had he been uncircumcised.

Fifth, to commend the virtue of obedience to us by his example; and so he was circumcised on the eighth day as was prescribed in the Law.

Sixth, that he who had come in the likeness of sinful flesh should not spurn the customary remedy by which sinful flesh had been cleansed.

Seventh, to take the burden of the Law upon himself, so as to liberate others from that burden……

St. Thomas interprets the Circumcision of Christ as a redemptive act; wherein he follows Bede following Ambrose. And he follows St. Bernard in pronouncing it the first proof of Christ’s true human nature.

One potential objection to the foregoing review must be dealt with before we proceed: how relevant is all this abstruse theology to the work of Renaissance artists? Are we to believe that they sat up nights reading Bede, Bernard, and Thomas Aquinas? There are two answers. First, that most of these theological notions were not then as rare as modern oblivion has made them; they were the stuff of the sermons to which all Christendom was exposed, artists included. The theology of the Church Fathers and Doctors resounded continually from the pulpits. Secondly, the gist of the above arguments was broadcast in two steady best sellers of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. I have in mind, to begin with, the Meditations on the Lzft of Christ by the Pseudo-Bonaventure — a work of naive sentimental piety, composed shortly before 1300 and aimed at the common reader. Chapter VIII treats as follows of Christ’s Circumcision.

Today our Lord Jesus Christ began to shed His consecrated blood for us. From the very first, He who had not sinned began to suffer pain for us, and for our sins He bore torment. Feel compassion for Him . . . for perhaps He wept today. . . . Today His precious blood flowed. His flesh was cut with a stone knife. . . . Must one not pity Him? . . . The child Jesus cries today because of the pain He felt in his soft and delicate flesh, for He had real and susceptible flesh like all other humans…… xxv

Observe that the Child’s divinity is not argued — a title such as “our Lord” asserts it sufficiently. What must be insisted on is the tenderness of the Godman 5 flesh, vulnerable and hurting. The argument that the Circumcision authenticates the Incarnation is being conveyed to the plebs.

The other best seller to which I referred is the Golden Legend, compiled in the late 13th century by the Dominican Archbishop of Genoa, Jacopo da Voragine. For nearly three hundred years, the Legenda aurea served as the standard compilation of the lives of the saints, and as a source book for every Renaissance painting with a hagiological theme. The structure of the work follows the liturgical year, and the entry for January 1 informs us that Christ allowed himself to be circumcised “to show that he had assumed true human flesh; so as to destroy the error of them who would say that he had taken on a phantasmal and not a true body. To confute their error, he wished to be circumcised and emit blood, for [in the phrasing of William Caxton’s translation of 1483~ a body phantastic shall shed no blood.”63

Thus once again, in this most popular Renaissance reading, the genuineness of the Incarnation is put to proof in the sexual member. More than that: the wounding of it initiates the salvation of humankind, for the archbishop says further: “On this day he began to shed his blood for us . . . and this was the beginning of our redemption.” Then, after citing three subsequent effusions of the precious blood (at the Agony in the Garden, the Flagellation, and the Nailing to the Cross), Voragine comes to the fifth and last shedding-“when his side was opened [with a lance] and this was the sacrament of our redemption, for then out of his side issued blood and water”64 — the blood and water which, in Augustine’s wording, “we know to be the sacraments from which the Church is built up.” In Voragine’s formulation, the first and last wounds received are not yet placed in immediate apposition, but they appear as the terminal points of an ordained cycle. Linking beginning and end, the knife’s cut to the gash of the lance, we trace a passage on the body of Christ from man to God; the sexual member broaching the mortal Passion, the breast yielding the gift of grace. Put into words, the anatomical consequence of Voragine’s formula comes as a shock-that Christ’s redemptive Passion, which culminates on the cross in the blood of the sacred heart, begins in the blood of the penis. We are educated to shrink from such thinking. But it is Christian thinking implicit in doctrine, explicit wherever in Renaissance art Christian teaching is brought face to face with its own metaphoricity. The coupling of Christ’s last and first wounds a verbal figure to bridge a lifespan of three decades-becomes topical in 15thand 16th-century Passion pictures that guide the trickle of gore from the breast back to the groin: a blood hyphen be XXVI tween commencement and consummation (Figs. 63-65, 96, 98, 184~87).65 On this integrity of the Passion enduring under the multiplicity of its incidents, the painters linger much as St. Bonaventure had done, and as two English poets of the 17th century were to do. Both Milton and Crashaw throw the trajectory of Christ’s Passion from Circumcision to Crucifixion, from the knifed member to the speared heart. I quote from Milton’s sonnet, “Upon the Circumcision,” 1634:

Fig. 64. Henri Bellechose, Retable of Saint Denis, 1416. ii

Fig. 65. Dijon School, Entombment, C. 1400.

. . . he, that dwelt above
High-throned in secret bliss, for us frail dust
emptied his glory, even to nakedness;

And seals obedience first with wounding smart
This day; but oh! ere long,
Huge pangs and strong
Will pierce more near his heart.

Crashaw’s sonnet of the same year-“Our B. Lord in his Circumcision to his Father” — begins:

To thee these first fruits of my growing death
(For what else is my life?) lo I bequeath.

It ends:

These Cradle-torments have their towardness.
These purple buds of blooming death may bee,
Erst the full stature of a fatall tree.
And till my riper woes to age are come,
This knife may be the speares Praeludium.

Like Renaissance paintings of the brooding Christ Child, Crashaw’s poem foreshortens duration. The newborn savior, nesting omnipotence in the condition of vulnerability, surrenders to his first stigma the life-giving organ. Eight days old, the manful God lives in the instantaneity of beginning and end, hosts a yet distant death and overleaps the time lapse while submitting to time’s regiment. This is more than a case of divine prescience. As in the prolepses of Renaissance painting, as in the “incarnational theology” of the preachers, Christ’s death is conceived as wholly infolded in his miracle birth. Not that the Passion and Resurrection are denied their necessity, but they are regarded – I am quoting O’Malley – as “articulations of what was already inchoately accomplished” in the Incarnation.66 And this must be why we find Renaissance preachers contemplating the redemptive work of God’s infant body much as Renaissance painters did, that is to say, with the same dismissal of squeamishness, the same enthusiasm, the same sense of fulfillment.

The evidence is spread wide in the sermons preached during the 15th century on the Circumcision of Christ. Their essential message is still the message of the Church Fathers and Doctors. The arguments of Augustine, Ambrose, Bede, Bernard, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Jacopo da Voragine are voiced again, sometimes in renovated latinity, but unfailingly to affirm traditional teaching. New in these orations is their festive tone, their choice of emphasis, their congratulatory zeal and unabashed exultation.

What shall be said of this Circumcision, “which pertains to the salvation of mankind and your immortality,” demands a Ciceronian humanist (who died in 1431, and whose undated oration was composed for delivery by a Franciscan friar). “What shall be said about this first holy shedding of blood . . . this most precious blood which today our Lord spills for us for the first time. . . . He wished to be circumcised that he might extinguish the flames of our detestable lusts. . . .” By the voluntary gift of his blood, we are told, Christ has prevailed over the devil. And the oration congratulates him as a victor, whose triumph is compared with the military triumphs of ancient Rome. In the Feast of the Circumcision, “we celebrate the day in which our victor brings back to us the first trophies of the victory over our perpetual foe.”67

Even more pertinent to our subject are the sermons preached at the Vatican on the Feast of the Circumcision. Declaiming at Solemn Mass before the pope — ~oram Papa inter missarum soleninia — the preachers revel in the exegetic tradition, and rejoice in directing their eloquence to Christ’s sexual member. Of the 164 sermons O’Malley has studied, some in manuscript, others in incunabula, ten were preached on January 1, and the message they bear is consistent: the Circumcision of Christ, wherein the Incarnation is verified, the Passion launched, and the Resurrection presaged, is the pledge and commencement of human salvation~”the symbol of Christ’s Passion and its beginning.”65 Thus in a published sermon delivered C. 1460 by Giovanni Antonio Campano:

Today he began to open for us the door and to make accessible the entry to life. At the moment the boy was circumcised, the weapons for our salvation appeared for the first time in the blood of that infant.

Bernardino Carvajal, preaching in 1484 before Sixtus IV, wants the feast celebrated “as though the Lord were circumcised today, so that we may have the primordial beginning of his Passion confirmed in us. So again in Antonio Lollio’s oration of 1485:

Today is opened for mankind the book of the Circumcision, the first volume of the most bitter Passion. Here issues the first blood of our redemption. Today we begin to be saved, Holy Father, for we have Jesus who today has chosen to spill his blood for the sake of man whom He created. . . . For until this most holy day, which is not unjustly set at the head of the year, we were all exiles. . . . Let us enter through the gate which circumcision has opened for us, and which today lies open even wider through baptism. . . . Let us venerate this most sacred day of the circumcision, which we can call the gate that opens the way to Paradise.

And Battista Casali, preaching before Julius II in 1508:

Rightly the Church decreed the celebration of this day of life which is the forecourt of our redemption and a sure compact of salvation between Christ and mortals.

The Circumcision extolled in these sermons is more than a gateway, forecourt, or even “first volume.” It is the sine qua non of mankind’s redemption. Campano (c. 1460) declares that:

It would not have been enough for Christ to be born for us had he not begun to shed that divine blood in which our salvation reposes.

This notion of the insufficiency of the Incarnation alone — which we encountered earlier in St. Bernard-recurs again in the oration of Antonio Loiho.

Nor would it have sufficed for Christ to be born for wretched mortals, if (after eight days were fulfilled) he had not undertaken, while still a boy, to spill his blood by being circumcised.

The logic is sound; since the Incarnation draws its effectiveness from responsive faith, it would have forfeited that effectiveness, had it been open to legitimate doubt:69 without proof of blood, the flesh assumed by the godhead might have been thought merely simulated, phantom, deceptive. Such indeed were the pestiferous doctrines advanced more than a thousand years earlier by Docetists and Gnostics, those who held Christ’s assumed body to have been spiritual, not carnal, so that he only appeared to be suffering. Against these long-buried heresies our preachers discharge the full spleen of their rhetoric. Each conjures up ancient errors which, by one ruse or another, denied Christ his veritable humanity. Campano points triumphantly to Christ’s Circumcision to confound the aberrations of Apelles (2nd century), Valentinus (2nd century), Manichaeus (3rd century), Apollinarius (4th century), etc. -names long ago execrated, heresies utterly crushed and disproved, their very memory preserved only in the diatribes of the champions of victorious orthodoxy. The early apologists (such as Clement, Tertullian, and St. Irenaeus) had roundly refuted them; Aquinas in his encyclopedic way had recorded them; now our Renaissance orators exorcize them for rhetorical effect. It is remarkable to hear preachers of the late Quattrocento raise up the old heresiarchs so as to overwhelm them again and again by the power of Christ’s Circumcision. Thus Bernardino Carvajal (1484, before Sixtus IV):

By circumcision he showed himself to be truly incarnate in human flesh. Whereat Manichaeus, Apollinarius, and Valentinus poured forth heresies, Manichaeus ascribing to Christ a fantastic body, Apollinarius a divine, Valentinus a celestial; which clearly excludes the natural pain in the circumcised flesh of the Lord. But surely, if blood was flowing, there was pain, aggravated in the infant flesh. Truly therefore the human flesh of Christ has been most fully demonstrated by his circumcision.

Lollio’s sermon of the following year opens in pugnacious apostrophe of these same hapless heretics:

Today we declare war on thee, Manichaeus! . . Prayerful and stripped for contest we enter the decisive palestra, eager to wrestle with Apelles and Manichaeus, confident, with God’s help of winning rich spoils and the triumph of victory.

Outraged at the slanders that would have made Christ’s agonies vain, the preacher exclaims:

O Basilideans, who deny that Jesus suffered . . . look upon the circumcised boy, hardly come into the light. . . .O Apellites, who say that Jesus was an illusory man, hear the voice of the crying boy, and believe now that he suffered an inflicted wound. O iniquitous Sedechians, look . . . on Jesus the firstborn of Mary, who is rendered bloody today. . . . Look upon the boy of eight days brought here today to be circumcised. O Valentinians, O Alexandrians, O Manichaeans . . and all you heretics and proclaimers of false doctrine – spew out now the old dudgeon [fermentum] . . . and consider the clemency of the boy Jesus who, in need of milk and the nurse, afflicted his most holy and pure flesh with the pain of circumcision.

The above was evidently accounted a tour de force; Poliziano dubbed LoIho’s sermon “a golden oration.” In its verve and theatrical genius and the elegance of its Latin, it must have seemed fairly exceptional. No wonder that more humdrum performances, covering the same ground year after year, encouraged what O’Malley calls an “almost ineradicable” inclination to talk during the sermons. In the year following Lollio, the cardinals, if they listened, would have heard from de Bagnarus that “the incarnate Word . . . suffered circumcision in order to . . shatter the errors of diverse future heretics whom he foresaw”; and that “Christ underwent circumcision in order to demonstrate the truth of his human flesh.” Not all of the sermons delivered on January 1 came to be printed; and though all had to be written out and submitted for prior clearance, not all have survived. But the next Circumcision sermon, preached after 1493 before Alexander VI by Franciscus Cardulus, tells us once more that the heretics are routed by the event of this day, since “the human flesh of Christ has been most fully demonstrated by his circumcision.” And the preacher proceeds:

He did not offer his body to be wounded in order that the substance of his true flesh be denied by the impiety of heretics. . . It is good to overturn the profitless opinions of incorrigible men . . . [Followed again by a roster of loathed Gnostic names].

And finally, on a note which Renaissance art makes familiar:

Who would doubt that he had a real body derived from his mother a body that had all its members [omnibus membris express urn]. Who could maintain that to be simulated which is fondled [attrectatur], taken in the hand, receives a wound, feels pain?70 65

Not twenty years separate these protestations from the fond grandmother of Baldung’s woodcut (Fig. 13), or from the self-touching Child of Andrea del Sarto (Fig. 2). In the pictures as in the sermons, the argument for the authenticity of Christ’s manhood (his godhood needing no argument unless before infidels) draws its invincible strength from the Child’s sexual member.


45. For this passage from St. Cyril of Jerusalem and a discussion of the sphragis (seal) of circumcision, see Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy, pp. 63-69. Later theologians disputed just how the two sacraments of circumcision and baptism should be distinguished in terms of effective grace, but their arguments, from St. Augustine to Calvin, do not affect our subject.

46. On Marriage and Concupiscence, II, 24, p.292.

47. St. Ambrose, Letters, p.93.

48. Mantegna’s picture of the Circumcision occupies a prominent place in a doctoral dissertation now in progress at the University of Pennsylvania. Written by Jack Greenstein, the study offers a long overdue revelation of Mantegna’s theological genius.

49. Bede, In die festo circumcisionis domini col. 54. The doctrine was to be formulated explicitly five centuries later by Innocent III: “Although original sin was remitted by the mystery of circumcision, and the danger of damnation was avoided, nevertheless there was no arriving at the kingdom of heaven, which up to the death of Christ was barred to all. But through the sacrament of baptism the guilt of one made red by the blood of Christ is remitted, and one also arrives to the kingdom of heaven, whose gate the blood of Christ has mercifully opened for his faithful; see Denzinger, Sources, p.160, no.410.

50. Bede, In die festo circumcisionis domini, cols. 54A, 55A.

51. Ibid., cols. 56B, 56D, 57D.

52. Origen, On First Principles, IV 3, 3, p.293.

53. Erasmus, Dulce bellum inexpertis,” in Adages, trans. M.M. Phillips, Cambridge, Mass. 1964, ~p.335-36. X~XI\

54. Jerome, Letters, p. 55.

55. Oeuvres de St. Bernard, pp. 375-76.

56. Ibid., p. 376.

57. The above quotation is taken from St. Bernard’s second sermon on the Song of Songs (II. 6, p.12). We shall hear its argument restated with ever-mounting enthusiasm by later preachets (see pp.62-63).

58. Heiko A. Oberman has shown how far from universal was the acceptance of St. Thomas authority within “the pregnant plurality of fourteenth-century thought”; and how broadlv “Aquinas failed to appeal to philosophers and theologians well into the fifteenth centur,7 (-Fourteenth-century Religious Thought: A Premature Profile,” Speculum, 53 [1978], pp~. 80-93). O’Malley does not dispute these findings, but his concern is with the papal Rome of the Renaissance. And he has uncovered surprising evidence that the veneration of St. Thomas, the honoring of his doctrine on a level with the teaching of the Church Fathers, was a Renaissance cult, established in mid-I 5th-century Rome (O’Malley, “The Feast of Thomas Aquinas”).

59. Summa theologia’) III, q. 70, art. 3, resp.

60. Ibid., resp.

61. Ibid., q. 37, art. 1, responsio.

62. Pseudo-Bonaventure, Meditations, pp. 43-44

63. Voragine, Golden Legen4, p.34. I take this occasion to remark that the readiest available English version of the work — The Golden Legend of Jacobus d’ Vorogine, translated and adapted from the Latin by Granger Ryan and Helmut Ripperger, Arno Press, New York, 1969-is quite useless to any serious reader with a historical sense. The translators’ claim in the Foreword that “deletions are few, and changes in the text still fewer,” is not borne out by comparing their digest with the original. (Voragine’s eight-page chapter on the Circumcision of Christ dwindles in their edition to a page and a half.) Textual changes are as frequent as they are gratuitous. (Voragine has Christ assume veram carnem humanam, and there is no reason, unless the original is felt to be too too solid, to translate “true human flesh” as “human form.”) Nor are we heartened by these confessions at the end of the Foreword: “Most of the omissions have been long and higHy involved theological passages, which we felt rather encumbered than enhanced the book as a whole. . . . Occasionally, too, we have eliminated passages in which repetitions were multiplied . . . or where the stories told would have offended rather than inspired the reader of today.”

64. Voragine, Golden Legend, p.34 .

65 In a sermon preached in 1493 in the papal chapel, the preacher Cardulus (see p.64 below) interprets Christ’s penultimate words on the cross-“Consummatum est” (“it is finished”)-as referring to the cessation of circumcision. Interesting in the present context, but perhaps no more than ingenious rhetoric adapted to the occasion, since the sermon was delivered on the Feast of the Circumcision.

66 O’Malley, Praise and Blame, p. 138. The familiar prolepses in Renaissance scenes of the Infancy – their stark allusions to the Passion and Resurrection – are surely the pictorial equivalent of the incarnational soteriology of the preachers.

67. See the summary of Gasperino Barzizza’s unpublished oration in OMalley, Praise and Blame p.84.

68. Quotations from the six circumcision sermons adduced on pp.62-64 are taken from: Loiho, Oratio circumcisionis, fols. 1,2, 5v; Campano, D’circumcisione, fols. 85v, 87; Carvaja), Oratio in die circumcisionis, fols. 8, 8v; Casaii, Oratio in Circuncisione, in O’Mattey, “Casari,~ p. 280; de Bagnarus, Oraho de nomine Iesu, f~. 1; and Cardulus, Oratio de circumcisione fol. 88v.

69. See the passage from St. Bernard, quoted above, p.55, where it is argued that God’s descent to companionship with mankind, though foretold by the Prophets and fervently longed for, would not have availed unless man was convinced that the body assumed in the Incarnation was true human substance.

70. Cardulus, Oratio de circumcisione, fol. 89. Cf. fol. 86v-Christ underwent circumcision to show himself to mortals in the flesh” (Ut se mortatibus incarne monstraret). 71. St. Augustine, Sermon XIX, 1 (Ben. 200); Sermons p. 160.