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Circumcision in
the History of Art

Ancient art    Classical art   Modern 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[The text page regarding history of circumcision has been withdrawn for revision]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 peninsula 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]
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

grave statue Grave statue of Meryrahashtef, 2345BC-2181BC

It was customary in ancient Egypt to place statuettes of the deceased, at different ages of his life, in the tomb. This is the youngest one, showing Meryrahashtef as a teenager. "It is carved from a single piece of ebony and mounted on a simple base of sycamore wood. The form is conventional: the young man is shown, rather exceptionally, in the nude, striding forward, his left leg advanced, his arms at his sides, fists clenched, holding truncated cylindrical objects which have been identified as small rolls of cloth. The head is covered with the conventional curled wig, very carefully carved and painted black, and the eyes, which in a superior commission would have been inlaid, are simply painted. The delineation of the facial details is sensitive and restrained: the eyebrows are lightly indicated, the nose subtly modeled, the unemphasized mouth slightly unbalanced, suggesting a wry smile. Although the attitude is conventional, it is not treated in a conventional way; the body turns and bends in a lithe manner, which was undoubtedly the intention of the artist, and not the result of a warping of the wood. The impression of energy generated is emphasized by the elongation of the left leg that strides forward." (from the British Museum catalogue)

The boy is very clearly circumcised!

Reproduced by permission of the British Museum.

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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.

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   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. Below we have just a few other examples.

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Tobias   Justin O'Brien (1917-1996, Australia) was a deeply religious artist who naturally depicted biblical men and boys as circumcised. This included angels, as we see in this painting of Tobias struggling with the angel. (He often used his pupils at Cranbrook School as models, and they would have been circumcised, of course).

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James Gleeson (1915-2008) was Australia's leading exponent of Surrealism. Many of his paintings show nude men (always circumcised) in an imaginary psychological landscape.

This one is titled 'Man in Psychoscape'.

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Sculpture   Charles Ray (born 1953, 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) but the boy wasn't circumcised and the art was nothing like the same quality. Charles Ray’s version formerly stood at the entrance to the Grand Canal.

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Robert Graham (1938 - 2008, USA)

The (headless) sculpture depicted here stands at the entrance to the site of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and depicts the American water polo player Terry Schroeder. Wikipedia commends its anatomical accuracy - in which case it doesn't look as if Schroeder is circumcised.

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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]

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