Circumcision in Late Medieval and Renaissance Culture

Let us move now to the second example of the cultural politics of the circumcision of Jesus and its representation/interpretation. This brings us closer to home (historically and geographically) and rescues me from troubled waters of New Testament exegesis and the sharks within those waters ready to take lumps out of unwitting theologians who wander in there untrained, unlettered. The circumcision ofJesus, as already mentioned, has been celebrated by the Church since the sixth century, but it enjoyed a certain cultic fashion in the fourteenth, fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in particular. Suddenly, additional to the regular sermons still preached all over Christendom at the opening of the year, collections of orations delivered in the Vatican by aspiring theologians like Campano (in his De cir-cumcisione), Carvajal (in his Oratio in die circumcisionis), Cardulus (in his Oratio de circumcisione) and Lollio (in his Oratio circumcisionis) were published. A study of them has been made by the historian of rhetoric, John O'Malley.36 This was a time when Catherine of Sienna claimed a betrothal to Christ that was mystically figured as the wearing of her Lord's foreskin as a ring. Paintings represented this mystical exchange, while several churches claimed to have the prepuce of Christ — most notably St John Lateran. Steinberg has examined how several painters in this period depicted the visitation of the Magi as an inspection of the circumcised genitalia ofJesus. This inspection can be observed, for example, in Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi (1470) and in Pieter Bruegel's Adoration of the Magi (1564).

Now part of what we are witnessing here is a cultural shift from the medieval period towards a new valorisation of the material, expressed in a new emphasis upon the incarnation. Christ was humanised. No longer portrayed as King and victor, he is shown as the vulnerable human victim. Christ is brother and friend. He was to be lived out in the world, as St Francis preached and practised. Bernardino Carvajal (preaching before Sextus IV) proclaimed: 'By circumcision he showed himself to be truly incarnate in human flesh.'37 But despite this new turn to embodiment, there

36 Praise and Blame in Renaissance Rome: Rhetoric, Doctrine and Reform in the Sacred Orators of the Papal Courts, c. 1450-1521 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1979).

37 Quoted by Steinberg in The Sexuality of Christ, p. 63.

was a continuation of the tradition of allegorising the circumcision, emphasising its relation, in the new covenant, to baptism, self-sacrifice and the glorified resurrected body.

This revaluation of the circumcision was not simply a Christian phenomenon. Elliot Wolfson has demonstrated the way Kabbalists developed what the Old Testament and Mishnah employed as a trope into the mystical symbol. In the Zohar circumcision is associated with the ability to see the Shekhinah, the divine presence. The circumcision, as an inscription in the flesh of the Hebrew letter yod (the first letter of the tetragrammaton) 'represents the divine imprint on the body'.38 The physical opening, therefore, is the seal that, in its symbolic valence, corresponds to an ontological opening in God. Furthermore, entering the Shekhinah is an erotic experience of penetrating the divine feminine. The Kabbalists, in Wolfson's account, related the eye and the penis in an expression of how the initiated had the ability to see mystically and understand. They also related the phallus to the mouth, 'the covenant of the foreskin and the covenant of the tongue'.39 A secret wisdom is imparted such that 'the process of circumcision, the removal of the foreskin and the uncovering of the corona, is a disclosure of the secret. In the disclosure of the phallus, through the double act of circumcision, the union of the masculine and feminine aspects of God is assured.'40

Yet despite all this cultural attention to circumcision, whenever the naked member ofJesus is displayed pictorially or in sculpture, it is never a circumcised penis that is revealed. Steinberg lists a number of paintings of the naked baby Jesus by Cariani, dal Colle, Perugino, Conegliano, Correggio and others, in all of which Jesus seems to be well over eight days old and yet never is the penis circumcised. Perhaps more striking are the sculptures by Michelangelo, especially the Risen Christ and his famous David. These bodies are not Jewish bodies and neither of them shows a circumcised penis. Now why, in a culture that found great significance in the circumcision and the humanity of Christ, is the circumcision itself not physically portrayed, even when the genitals of Jesus are carefully delineated? Why is circumcision orally and textually proclaimed and physically and visibly masked? What is organising the denial here, just as, in the account in Luke's Gospel, what is organising the avowal there?

Again, let me emphasise that it is the politics governing enquiry, not the interpretation as such, that I wish to focus on here. Politically I am struck by the rejection of the Jewish body in both the Graeco-Roman period and

38 Circle in the Square, p. 30.

Renaissance culture. This rejection gave rise in both periods to anti-Semitism and pogroms. Youths being educated in the Hellenistic schools exercised naked, and it is recorded that some Hellenised Jews who attended such schools underwent surgery to replace the foreskin (see 1 Macc. 1.15; Josephus, Antiquities 12.241; 1 Cor. 7.18). In the Renaissance period circumcision was mainly associated with Muslims (who were slaves) or with Jews who were associated with the greedy and covetous sides of nascent capitalism. In both cultures the circumcised body is a socially, ecclesially and aesthetically (and therefore also cosmically) inferior body. In both Roman and Renaissance cultures the circumcised body was a mutilated and wounded body, not the kind of body that could function as a microcosm of cosmic and political harmony. Why should the ideal body, that figures the resurrected body of Christ, have its foreskin intact?

0 0

Post a comment