Circumcision in Art

Ancient & Classical     Mediaeval    Renaissance    18th & 19th Century     Modern

Ancient and Classical Art

grave statue EGYPT
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 young teenager. The second in the series can be seen on the aboutcirc site. "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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Detail of a grecian (Lucanian) Bell Krater now at the University of Melbourne.

The young man is full adult height but has minimal pubic hair, a very thin penis and an extraordinarily long prepuce. This is clearly depicting Greek ideals of beauty rather than reality. But he does have quite impressive pecs!

The Lucanian state, in what is now Calabria, flourished from 525 to 450 BC enjoying a fragile independence from both the Greek states and the nascent Roman Republic, to which they eventually succumbed.

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Greek vases weren't always so chaste. Click here for one showing a homosexual orgy (you are warned). Adults only!
Greek Vase

ROMAN SCULPTURE, copy of a Greek original
Dionysius (Bacchus) with a cupbearer.

Dionysius was the Greek god of wine and celebration, and with the melding of the cultures he was equated with the Roman equivalent Bacchus. This beautiful sculpture shows Dionysius in a gentle, relaxed mood rather than in his more usual party mode. The affection between him and his young friend is obvious.

Also obvious is the undeveloped appearance of Dionysius' penis, barely larger than that of his pre-pubertal cupbearer, though he does have larger testicles. The Graeco-Roman tradition frequently leads to such anomalies.

Uffizi Museum, Florence. Photo JB

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Mediaeval Art

Abraham circumcising himself at the command of the angel.

From a new French translation of the Bible by Jean de Sy, commissioned in 1355 by Jean the Good, and to be financed by a tax on the Jews (!). It took some time and was completed in the reign of Charles VI. The present 12-volume manuscript was created in 1381, with illustrations by an artist known to us only as 'The Master of the Bouquetaux' or 'The Master of Jean de Sy'. He didn't complete all the illustrations, leaving some as sketches to be coloured in by another hand, but since this is an early one it is probably all his work.

From the Facebook page Mediaeval Fascinations. Thanks to AM for finding it.

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Renaissance & Baroque Art

It was well-known to the painters of the Renaissance and Baroque that the Jewish characters of the Old and New Testaments were circumcised. The Feast of the Circumcision, January 1st, was an important part of the church year, and was often depicted in religious art, as shown below. Yet images of biblical characters were invariably depicted as uncircumcised. Further more, even older men were depicted with the classical small, phimotic penis even though the evidence suggests that their models would not have looked like that. The Graeco-Roman tradition still ruled!

Here are some examples:

Masaccio - explulsion from Eden Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, known as Masaccio, 1401-1428

The expulsion from Eden, c. 1424.
Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence.

This was one of the first nude paintings of the Italian Renaissance, and Masaccio was an early practioner of both realistic perspective and depictions of emotion. The latter is particularly evident here. Eve's attempts at modesty remind us of Botticelli's Birth of Venus, painted 60 years later, but the pose actually comes from a classical Greek sculpture, the Aphrodite of Cnidos - known to Masaccio by a Roman copy, the Capitoline Venus. Masaccio's tragically early death at age 26 (cause unknown) was widely mourned by his contemporaries, who regarded him as one of the finest painters of the time.

Before cleaningBefore cleaning We are lucky to be able to see Adam's private parts - before cleaning in the 1980s they were hidden by added vegetation (not actually fig leaves), shown left. The angel's severe expression was also toned down (shown right) before the cleaning revealed Masaccio's original version.

Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Thanks to JM for suggesting this painting.

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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. Yet if anyone Isaac, as Abraham's first-born son after the adoption of the covenant of circumcision, should have been depicted as 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.

The history of this picture is amusing, and mirrors that of several others of his ecclesiastical works. The painting was commissioned by a church of St Anne, but the realistic portrayal of St Anne as an elderly lady was not acceptable to the church. He promptly sold it privately at a very good price and painted another picture for the church.

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Painting   Giovanni Bellini (circa 1430‒1516)

The reluctance to depict a circumcised penis 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.

This was a popular subject, and some pictures do show the penis pre-op, with a knife brandished above it, but neither the post-op view, or any blood, are ever visible. See our Christianity page.

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Eighteenth & Nineteenth Centuries

The 18th and 19th centuries were the age of the great academies. The concept started in France back in 1648, when Louis XIV gave royal assent to the foundation of the Académie de peinture et de sculpture. Other European countries gradually followed, and eventually Britain followed suit with the Royal Academy, founded in 1768. These academies had two functions. Firstly, they sought to replace the master-apprentice system under which all artists had formerly been trained, with a formal system of instruction. Secondly, they provided exhibitions where artists could show their work. The old system where artists were patronized by great houses was dwindling, but the rising wealthy middle class were seeking art to decorate their homes and reflect their standing in society. Public exhibitions were essential for this.

The teaching methods were rigorous, and totally different from the old apprenticeship approach. You copied the Old Masters, and you had to prove your ability drawing statuary before being allowed to graduate to the Life Class. The European academies only had male models until the 19th century, but the Royal Academy employed female models from the outset. However there were four male models each week and only one female (perhaps because they paid the females twice as much as the men). Unmarried males under 20 were not admitted to the female life classes. So every artist saw, and drew, plenty of nude men. (For more about Royal Academy models read the interesting article Naked Truth.)

Turner kneeling man

One of the early students in the Life Class was the painter JWM Turner, soon to become a hugely successful, and radical, figure in British art. Here is one of his life class sketches, worked up a bit to show a man in the countryside rather than the classroom. Turner was then just 15, and so forbidden to attend the female life classes.

Turner, kneeling man with hand upraised, around 1790, courtesy of the Tate Gallery, released under Creative Commons licence.

If you look closely, it is quite clear that the man is circumcised! The arrow in the detail image(below) points to the bare glans, with the coronal sulcus fully exposed.

This is quite radical, and if Turner had used this figure in one of his oil paintings for public exhibition he would doubtless have made changes, but faced with a circumcised model he took the chance to capture the bare knob. It would seem that a circumcised penis, even if not the norm, wasn't such a rarity that a man would feel uncomfortable exposing it in a life-drawing class. It is most unlikely that he was Jewish, since nudity is taboo in Judaism. It is more likely that he had served in the British East India company, where circumcision was common (see our UK page.) His muscular build suggests at least a spell as a soldier. (The male models were mostly young porters, boxers or soldiers.)

In the 19th century adult male nudes became a bit controversial, particularly in the English speaking world. In an age where even to mention trousers was considered indelicate, public display of male genitals was likely to give young ladies 'the vapours'. (Or at least, their elders thought it should). Yet the classical ideal of the nude male body was still held in esteem. For many years conservative curators and managers had added fig leaves or drapes to classical and renaissance sculptures, but now English sculptors were actually sculpting male nudes with fig leaves instead of genitals! The question of circumcision or not becomes unknowable. Here is an example.

Sir Richard Westmacott. Achilles, in Hyde Park, is part of a tribute to the Duke of Wellington. It was paid for by £10,000 raised by female subscribers - who one suspects might have hoped to see a bit more.

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Achilles sculpture

Modern Art

Male nude, yellow  Egon Schiele, 1890-1918

From the 20th century on artists were more willing to depict their male figures as circumcised. This recent discovery, Male Nude, yellow, painted by Egon Schiele in 1910, takes the record for the earliest example from Augustus John (below). Schiele was notorious in his short lifetime for the sexually explicit nature of his pictures (which actually landed him 3 weeks in jail). This is not a self-portrait - Schiele drew nude self-portraits in which he clearly had a foreskin. Also, the roughly sketched head seems to have a flowing moustache blending into sideburns, while Schiele was clean shaven.

Austria did have a large Jewish population at this time but Judaism prohibits nudity, and the facial hair suggests a gentile rather than a Jew. We do have to suspect that circumcision was much more common at this period than some historians would have us believe.

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Image courtesy of the online Artsy magazine.
Augustus John(1878-1961)

The British artist Augustus John made this drawing sometime around 1920. He was in America for quite a while in the early '20s, so this is probably an American boy, the son of one of his patrons. His own sons, of whom he made many drawings, were not circumcised. He was very famous in the first half of the 20th century, mainly as a portraitist. He was also notorious for his personal life - one woman at a time was never enough for him!
  Augustus John Boy

Stanley Spencer and his second wife Stanley Spencer (UK) 1891-1959

Sir Stanley Spencer (as he became) was a great, famous and very eccentric British artist. This picture 'Stanley Spencer and his second wife', popularly known as the 'Leg of Mutton' portrait, shows Spencer with his second wife, Patricia Preece. He had become infatuated with her in 1929 and finally married her, after divorce from his first wife Carline, in 1937. So why is he looking so gloomy in this portrait? Well, Patricia was a lesbian, and continued to live with her lover, artist Dorothy Hepworth. The marriage was never consummated. Meanwhile Spencer had made all of his property over to her. We can see, though, that Spencer had a tight circumcision - perhaps unusual for a boy born in 1891 in the UK.

Image courtesy Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Thanks to JM for proposing this page.

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Alice Neel, (USA) (1900-1984)

was another who showed penises the way they were, or sometimes how she wanted them to be. Her 1933 painting
Joe Gould (who she obviously thought was a bit of a prick) is shown with 3 penises, all uncircumcised, while beside him is the handsome torso of a circumcised man. Her heirs are strict about copyright so we cannot reproduce her work here, but the link will lead you to this work and many other paintings of hers.

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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Lucian Freud (1922-2011) was the grandson of Sigmund Freud, and thus Jewish. He fled his native Germany in 1933 and became one of Britain's nost famous artists of the 20th century. He painted people as they were, and in Britain of those days men were often circumcised. His pictures look spontaneous but in fact they took weeks to produce and he was very demanding of his sitters. He once painted out supermodel Jerry Hall's face because illness forced her to miss two sittings! Not surprisingly most of his models were friends rather than famous. Copyright restrictions prevent us posting his paintings on Circlist but you can see a picture of his friend Leigh Bowery here. (Opens in new window/tab).

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

This one is titled 'Man in Psychoscape'.

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Warhol torso   Andy Warhol (1928-1987, USA)

Detail of Warhol's one-off screenprint "Torso (Double) of 1982. Warhol needs no introduction but explicit images like this are rare in his work. The man is clearly circumcised, but quite loosely.

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William D. Hughes (born 1935, Australia)

This tender pencil drawing dates from 1975, a time when Hughes was quite well known, with regular exhibitions at a major Sydney gallery. He painted landscapes, street scenes in old Sydney, and especially the 'young Australian male', as the catalogues put it. I can find no mention of him after the 80s, and have no idea if he is still alive. Note the typical Aussie dead-tight circumcision.

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Semmel painting   Joan Semmel, born 1932, is an American painter who started off as an abstract expressionist. She switched to figurative painting with a strong feminist slant after living in Spain for some years during the Franco regime. Her paintings are very erotic but the women are never passive. This post-coital picture, Intimacy-Automony, is in the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The man - her lover - has a nice tight circumcision. The woman is Semmel herself. Thanks to Eric W. for bringing the picture to our attention.

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Jeff Koons - Naked Jeff Koons (born 1955, America)

Naked, 1988 - a porcelain sculpture by American Pop artist Jeff Koons, who is best known for his 'balloon dogs'. This has particular interest since it was advertised in the publicity for a Koons retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Here it was spotted by the widow of the photographer Jean-François Bauret, who spotted a startling resemblance to her late husband's photograph 'Enfants' taken in 1970, and issued as a postcard in 1975. (See the comparison below.) The children look identical even down to the hairstyles.

Mme Bauret complained to Koons and the Pompidou, who took no notice, so she took them to court, and in March 2017 she won. The judges noted that there differences - notably that Koons has the boy handing the girl a flower, whereas in Bauret's work they are just jolding hands. Whether they also noted that Koons' boy is circumcised and Bauret's is not was not recorded. The damages were €44,000 - just a slap in the wrist for Koons, whose works sell for millions, but probably useful for Mme. Bauret, even though half was taken up by legal fees.

Koons is no stranger to copyright suits - this was his second in a month! He loses most of them but when the penalties are so trivial, why should he care?

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Comparison, Bauret and Koons

Grant, arms crossed Daniel Barkley (born 1963, Canada)

Grant, arms crossed, is one of three standing portraits the Montreal artist painted of this young man in 2000. Barkley has won many awards in Canada, and had major retrospectives in 2004 and 2007.

It is good to see that circumcision still rules in Canada, and in this case at least, high and tight.

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  Norbert Bisky, 1970-present

Born in Leipzig (Germany) in 1970, Norbert Bisky studied at Universität der Künste, Berlin. He became particularly famous for his paintings of boys and young men. In a way, his style can be seen as a modern paraphrase of the depiction of the typical "ideal German youth", so popular during the Nazi era and later in GDR propaganda. We see lots of tall, blonde, healthy, often half naked young men engaged in some sports or other group activity. Some of the titles of his works speak for themselves to express the manly and collective character of those activities (but see editor's comment below).

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Detail One painting however is of special interest to the readers of Circlist: Michelsdorf (2007). While the majority of the models in Bisky's other paintings are white, this one shows a group of young men of (clearly) Arab (Muslim) descent. While in other paintings we see boys and young men clothed or shirtless, this one leaves nothing to the imagination about details of the male anatomy of a more intimate nature. Note the various reactions of the bystanders to the obviously circumcised member of the boy.

More about the work by Bisky can be found on his website or for instance in the book Norbert Bisky: A Retrospective, 10 Years of Painting.
Article by Arend.

Editor's note: My take on Bisky's pictures of 'ideal German youth' is that they are homo-erotic parodies of the Socialist Realism style. Remember East Germany had its first democratic elections, and opened its borders, when Bisky was 19. Reunification followed the next year. Anyway, have a look at his picture Auf der Wiese, Alarm in Baikonur and decide for yourself.

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. It was subsequently moved because its popularity caused major congestion!

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Pawel and Monika sculpture Paweł Althamer (born 1967, Poland)

Althamer is a leading Polish sculptor, ceramicist and installation artist. This 2002 sculpture depicts him with his then wife Monika. But is he circumcised or just naturally uncovered?

If the latter, it seems to be even rarer than circumcision in Western art.

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For further images of circumcion in art go to our Quirky Circumcision page,where we explore images that are in some way unconventional. Circumcised Greek Gods? Was Adam circumcised? Explore the possibilities - all are great art.

Further suggestions welcome

To suggest further examples of circumcision depicted in artworks please e-mail the Editor.
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Thanks to Tom, Eric, Alex, JM, Artsy magazine, the British Museum and the Tate Gallery for images and links and to the Royal Academy, the Art Gallery of NSW and Wikipedia for information.

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