Circumcision in Italian Renaissance Art: A Hellenistic Influence

By Tori Waqanaceva-Simpson

Perhaps one of the understated influences of Hellenism in the Italian Renaissance is the intact foreskin. Although it appears quite obviously in Michelangelo’s David, and other depictions of nudity in Renaissance artwork, its meaning and reasons for inclusion are seldom considered. Circumcision’s history is elaborate and encompassing, with origins among the Ancient Egyptians and Indigenous Australians. During the Renaissance, it was routinely practiced by the religions of Judaism and Islam, having being denounced by Christianity. Large opposition also came from the Ancient Greeks, who were opposed to circumcision and likened it to barbarism and primitiveness. The Ancient Greeks, which Hellenism refers, embodied the aesthetic influences of a changing Roman elite. The Hellenistic ideology of bodily aesthetics can be viewed on many red-figure paintings and literature asserting the benefits of the prepuce (foreskin). This view of circumcision would have flowed into the evaluation and translation of Ancient Greek works throughout the Renaissance and perhaps had been the reason why so many nude figures were created with foreskins. The following essay will delve into the history of circumcision and its influence on Hellenistic views in Renaissance artwork, particularly Michelangelo’s David and Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

Circumcision’s origins can be traced back to approximately 2,400 BC in Ancient Egypt, where bas-relief carvings depict the surgery. Gollaher’s History of Circumcision (2001) provides great detail into the ritual practiced by the Egyptians, describing it as a rite of passage and “an opportunity for a youth, on the threshold of manhood, to demonstrate his mastery over bodily pain.” Further evidence suggests that circumcision was practiced religiously and socially, with the elite of Egyptian society requesting priests to circumcise their sons. Beyond its symbolic meaning, the Egyptians may have also practiced it as a means of cleansing the body to prevent smegma (malodorous secretions that can build up between the foreskin and the glans), which gives circumcision a medicinal purpose. It is particularly interesting to note that Pythagoras (570-501 BC) had himself circumcised, perhaps in alignment with the Ancient Egyptians whom he rigorously studied. This opposes the predominating Greek view of body modification, which Herodotus (484-425 BC) remarks in regards to the Egyptians: “Their concern for cleanliness also explains why they practise circumcision, since they value cleanliness more than comeliness.”

It is widely understood that circumcision was adopted by the Patriarch of Judaism, Abraham, from Ancient Egypt. This transition can also be linked to the event of Moses crossing the Red Sea, leading the Israelites to freedom and re-establishing their religion of Abraham. In Genesis, it is stated that Abraham was instructed by God to circumcise himself and all males among him as a sign of the covenant between them. The act of circumcision symbolised submission and a somewhat permanent promise to God, although there are later accounts of Jewish men attempting to undo the effects of circumcision. This was most common during revolts with the Greeks and Romans where circumcised Jewish men were easily identifiable. Possible reasons for the opposition to circumcision by the Greeks was its view as a mutilation to the human form and the lack of modesty the removal of the foreskin gave to the penis, which was particularly important during athletic tournaments and could be quite embarrassing for Jewish participants. Hodges (2001) writes in The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome that the Greeks and Romans viewed circumcision as a “barbaric” and “mindless” mutilation, which gives grounds for its criminalisation as the Roman Imperial administrations were “charged with the self-imposed task of civilising the known world.”

The Greeks admiration for the foreskin could be seen through artistic interpretations and medical literature. In Greek vase painting, where phalluses were present the prepuce was depicted with great length and always shown to cover the glans of the penis (even when erect). In medical literature, the uncircumcised penis is further praised by Galen, a Greek physician and surgeon in the Roman Empire who remarks that the prepuce is among the most useful and brilliant parts of the body. Greek philosophers Aristotle and Hippocrates both reference the understood medical view at the time of it being impossible to grow or reunite a circumcised man, although in later centuries it was proved that there was some form of repair. As these conflicting views between the Greco-Romans and the Jewish community clashed, Rabbis faced a growing number of Jewish men attempting to undo their circumcisions. This prompted the stricter Rabbis to cut more from the foreskin and prevent possible repair. The Ancient Roman laws forbidding circumcision (which issued a penalty of death) were eventually amended to allow Jewish men to continue the practice, however anyone outside the religion who practiced circumcision would suffer the punishment of castration. Throughout these conflicts, Jesus Christ was born and circumcised although conversely, it would not factor into Christianity.

The event of Christ’s circumcision inspired many artworks and poems, some likening it to a precursor to his death on the cross and others praising the foreskin of Christ, which was believed to be one of the most sacred Christian relics in medieval Christendom. Despite the popularity of Christ’s circumcision, the ritual was never implemented into Christianity. Gollaher cites the apostle Paul, and his possible motives for denouncing the practice of circumcision in Christianity. The main reasons involve Paul’s understanding that “requiring circumcision would vastly inhibit the appeal of his gospel”, and therefore reinterpreted physical circumcision to something that is performed spiritually, and offered that Jesus Christ “fulfilled the law, and this fulfillment rendered circumcision irrelevant in the eye of God.” This of course would greatly increase Christianity’s appeal to the Romans, Greeks and eventually most of Western Europe. The resulting expansion and dominance of Christendom invoked a yearning for classical texts, which was realised in the burgeoning Renaissance.

As early as 1354, Italian Humanist Francesco Petrarch was writing to Byzantium, requesting the works of Homer. The presence of Greek literature in Italy was centred in Florence and flourished along with Humanism. This was despite many scholars not knowing Greek and requiring Byzantine translators to assist in the Latin conversion. One of the most prominent humanist authors and intellectuals to be taught Greek in Florence was Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444), who became an apostolic secretary to the papal court and eventually chancellor of Florence. Fortunately for the Greek scholars, Pope Eugenius IV (1431-47) and his successor Pope Nicholas V (1447-55) encouraged the assimilation of “Greek heritage into the Latin West.” This was nothing new however, as there had always been a relationship between the Romans and Greeks, going as far back as Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius (753-673 BC), who was a pupil of Pythagoras. However, Whitmarsh (2010) reported that “Roman responses to Hellenism consisted of a complex and partly incoherent mixture of adoption, adaptation, imitation, rejection and prohibition.” Horace (65-27 BC) also makes the following point, providing further insight into the relationship between the Greeks and Romans:

Greece, conquered Greece, her conqueror subdued,
And Rome grew polished, who till then was rude.

This could perhaps be interpreted as Greece conquering Rome with its ideologies and lifestyles of “softness, pleasure and luxury”, which conflicted with Rome’s moral code of grauitas and the mos maiorum. The theme here is not the conflict between Rome and Greece, but its long and interwoven history, both influencing (and sometimes dominating) the other.

The resurgence of Hellenism in the Italian Renaissance has been explained in three events by Whitmarsh:

First, libraries underwent a process of expansion and consolidation, so that it came to seem a sign of prestige for a library not only to be large in terms of the number of texts, but also monumental and permanent… the second development, the invention of printing with moveable type… finally the fall of Constantinople in 1453 served as powerful symbolic evidence of a cultural transfer that had been going on for some time.

The Renaissance was also heavily influenced by the sprouting ideology of Humanism which was based on the works of Aristotle, Cicero and other non-Christian texts. Bartlett (2000) explains that the Humanist movement altered the view of “saintly poverty” into wealth being “intrinsically good because it supported the civic life.” These dominating influences and ideologies of Humanism with the approval of wealth, would have closely aligned to the luxuries and pleasures that encompassed Hellenism and helped shape the Italian Renaissance and the artwork it crafted.

Michelangelo’s David (1504) is a particularly interesting statue for its obvious lack of circumcision for a Jewish man (figure 1).  Paoletti (2015) notes that Michelangelo (1475-1564) incorporated many variances between his David and other biblical representations. Despite the statue’s sheer size (which may be ironic considering David’s battle against the giant Goliath), Paoletti remarks on the “worried look” which contrasts with the biblical narrative of David’s self-confidence. Further interpretations of the anomalies of the statue, involving the “age, nudity, [and] suppression of attributes” lead Paoletti to remark that it would be difficult to identify this figure as the biblical hero David, if a person was viewing it for the first time. Paoletti does not comment on the lack of circumcision but attempts to explain these variations:

By changing David from self-assured boy to fearful young man, by splitting the presentation of the figure between body and head, and by removing the conventional attributes of the biblical David, Michelangelo removed the possibility of our reading the statue in a simplistic manner as an illustration of the story, thereby forcing a wider metaphorical reading that must have operated on both personal and public levels.

David was a part of a sculptural program of Old Testament prophets commencing around 1408 and commissioned for the Cathedral of Florence. As it was to be located in a communal public space, Paoletti argues that its creation would have been bound by “propagandistic requirements”. In 1442 circumcision was cited in the Papal Bull of Union with the Copts which reiterated the Church’s stance against the practice:

Therefore, it strictly orders all who glory in the name of Christian, not to practise circumcision either before or after baptism, since whether or not they place their hope in it, it cannot possibly be observed without loss of eternal salvation.

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Figure 1 – Michelangelo’s David

It is perhaps paradoxical that the Catholic Church would denounce circumcision, yet the circumcision of Christ was still a popular topic for artists to paint. This may be interpreted as Christianity being content with observing circumcision from afar and aligning with Hellenistic and Humanist ideologies of the natural form of the body.

The study of the human form can be observed in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man (figure 2) portraying the ideology of “man as a symbolic microcosm”. The drawing also provides a scale using foot and palm measurements and displays Leonardo’s commitment to detailed and accurate representation. Leonardo took inspiration from Roman architect Vitruvius who “used the human figure as an expression of harmony in the Creation.” The naked form of the man in the drawing appears to have an uncircumcised penis, although it is not as obvious as David. This decision, if it was made consciously, may have been created to represent the prevailing views of antiquity, and Hellenism in particular, throughout the Renaissance. Conversely, this decision might have been equally influenced by the Church and its views on circumcision. It is difficult to decisively comment as there has been minimal literature surrounding the topic of circumcision in the Renaissance.

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Figure 2: Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1490)

With so much of the Renaissance linked to the study of antiquity and that of Hellenism and the Bible, it would have been quite astonishing if Michelangelo had circumcised David. Circumcision’s origins in the Patriarchy with Abraham, and the covenant it holds within Judaism appeared as a barbaric ritual to the Ancient Greek and Roman outsiders. These dividing views are perhaps one of the main reasons why circumcision was deemed unnecessary in Christianity, as the apostle Paul interpreted the covenant as spiritual rather than physical, which greatly increased its appeal to the Greeks and Romans. The idea of the natural human form and modesty contributed to the principals of Hellenism and when combined with the Catholic church’s view on circumcision, it was no coincidence that the naked images of Michelangelo’s David and Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man appear to be uncircumcised.

 

Featured Image:

https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=96534&picture=the-david

Figures:

Figure 1 – Michelangelo’s David, retrieved from http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/the-vanda-cast-collection/  , on 06/11/2016

Figure 2 – Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitruvian_Man , on 06/11/2016

Bibliography

Bartlett, Kenneth. A Short History of the Italian Renaissance. University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Celenza, Christopher S. Hellenism in the Renaissance. The Oxford Handbook of Hellenic Studies, 2009.

Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality. London: Duckworth, 1978.

Eugenius IV, Pope. Bull of union with the Copts. Ecumenical Council of Florence (1438-1445): Session      11-4 February 1442.

Gollaher, David. Circumcision: A History Of The World’s Most Controversial Surgery. New York: Basic             Books, 2001.

Hodges, Frederick. “The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome. Bulletin of the History of              Medicine 75 (2001): 375-405.

Lee, Mireille M. Body, Dress and Identity in Ancient Greece. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Murtinho, Vitor. “Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man Drawing: A New Interpretation Looking at Leonardo’s    Geomateric Constructions” Nexus Network Journal 17 (2015): 507-524.

Paoletti, John T. Michelangelo’s David. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Thom, Johan C. “The Journey Up and Down: Pythagoras in Two Greek Apologists.” Church History 58    (1989): 302-303.

Whitmarsh, Tim. Hellenism. The Oxford Handbook of Roman Studies, 2010.

Zanda, Emanuela. Fighting hydra-like luxury. Bristol Classical Press, 2011.

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