History of Circumcision
from the dawn of the human race

for Circumcision in Art click here.

Before even considering archaeological or iconographic evidence, there is one compelling reason to believe that the practice of circumcision is of vast antiquity, and that is its global distribution. Homo sapiens evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago and spread throughout the world from about 125,000 years ago. In this our ancestors were following in the footsteps of many earlier hominid species. Expansion westwards from Asia Minor into Europe was initially hindered by the well-established population of light-skinned Neanderthals, so they turned eastwards, reaching India, southeast Asia and China around 75,000 years ago. [1]. The map (below) shows them arriving in Australia 50,000 years ago, but research keeps pushing that date back, and it now seems that modern humans could have been there between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago.

On the other hand, Home sapiens arrived in Europe about 40,000 years ago, where a limited amount of cross-breeding with Neanderthals gave modern Europeans their pale skins - a great advantage in northern latitudes where a dark skin could lead to vitamin D deficiency. Homo sapiens didn't reach North America until 15,000 years ago, and it took them at least another 3,000 years to get down to South America. The most recent 'developed' country to be settled by humans was New Zealand, just 1,500 years ago. (Again, the map is a little misleading here - it seems to show that New Zealand was settled by Melanesians, but in fact the settlers were Polynesian.)

human migrations
Human migrations out of Africa. [2]

Circumcision is widespread in Africa, and it could therefore have been the custom of the earliest modern humans - and even some of their predecessors. Various considerations suggest this, particularly since our closest living relatives, the great apes, do not have foreskins anything like human ones [3].

Looking at what we know of the ancient world, circumcision is customary among the Australian Aborigines (settled ~ 60,000 years ago, and with very little contact to the outer world since then). It was historically common in north Africa and the Middle East (settled over 100,000 years ago) and it appears from cave art to have been common in Europe before the last Ice Age (see below). In east Asia it was the custom of the Mongoliians, the Ainq (original inhabitants of Japan) [4], the Filipinos, and their close relatives the original inhabitants of Taiwan (before successive waves of Chinese invasion). It is universal among Polynesians, except the Maori of New Zealand. It is also universal among Melanesians, except for a few tribes in mainland New Guinea.

That leaves the last continents to be settled - North and South America. Remember, these are being settled by humans 110,000 years after the first exodus from Africa. Yet circumcision is still popular - from the Inuits to the Incas. This is obviously a very powerful tradition, to have survived 200,000 years and a journey three-quarter of the way around the world. No other body modification has such a wide global distribution, and it seems hugely improbable that it could have arisen independently in so many places.

But not every culture practises circumcision, so some must have abandoned it. There are probably several different reasons for this. In times of great stress, when survival is paramount, cultural and religious practices tend to be lost (as when the the tribes of Israel are lost in the desert and gave up circumcision, as told in the book of Exodus). The last Ice Age, which turned much of Europe into a frozen wilderness, probably led to the abandonment of circumcision there. The stress of adapting to a very different terrain was probably why all but one of the Polynesian tribes who settled in New Zealand gave up the practice. Other reasons include making your group different from your rivals, as with Jews and Philistines (Pelistim, or Palestinians) which are always depicted as battles between circumcised and uncircumcised. Edomites, Ammonites, Midianites and Moabites are all mentioned in the Bible as circumcised. Curiously, by 500 BC Herodotus resported that Philistines were circumcised. Among the major civilizations of the region Egyptians were circumcised, while Babylonians and Assyrians were not. We know, too, that the Arabs were circumcised long before the time of the prophet Mohammed.

An 11th century BC engraved ivory tablet found at Megiddo (Armageddon) in northern Israel. A procession including two circumcised captives (Jews?), is being presented to a king. From [5].

In the past two thousand years the spread of the world's great organized religions has confused the picture. We are never likely to know much about the foreskin status of the oringinal inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent since the region is now divided between Muslims (who require circumcision) and Hindus (who reject it). Buddhism, while not taking a strong stand, in practice does not encourage circumcision, though Buddhists tend to wear their foreskins retracted while Hindus do not.

It seems clear that originally circumcision was carried out in the late teens, and was the symbol that sex, and marriage, was now permitted to the young man. In some societies this is still the case, and was in many others until relatively recent times [4] - in the early 19th century the great Zulu king Shaka banned circumcision because he wanted the young men to serve in his army, not chase girls. Marriage was only permitted after military service. However, in even the simplest of hunter-gatherer societies, such as aboriginal Australia, social customs and rules had evolved to regulate marriage, so that this function of circumcision was no longer important. Most societies found that performing the operation before puberty had fewer complications, and also had value in testing the fortitude of boys before they entered adolescence. This probably happened more than 10,000 years ago, though the earliest clear evidence we have comes from Egypt about 5,000 years ago (below). By this time, on accepted Biblical chronology, the Jewish people were already performing circumcision at the age of one week.

The Archaeological Story

Aboriginal Australia

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.
This work does not seem to have appeared in peer-reviewed literature but if the date is substantiated it is by far the oldest evidence for circumcision, twice as old as European cave art.
Photo credit: Robert Scheer[6]

European Cave Archaeology

Habitation of natural caves in southern Europe commenced during the Upper Paleolithic period, around 20,000 years ago and before the last Ice Age. Some rock carvings survive from this era. The images below come from France and Spain [7].

Cave Painting   Annotated image

Rock carving in the cave of Saint-Cirq (Le Bugue, France), depicting a male with a disproportionately large penis
(to say the least!) and bared glans.

Engraving from Los Casares Cave, Spain, also about
20,000 years old, showing similarly exaggerated sexual
  Sculpted circumcised penis,
Castanet Cave, Spain

All images are from Angulo et al.[7]. While the very stylized images of intercourse could possibly be taken as just showing retracted foreskins, the penis sculpture could only represent a circumcised organ. The authors suggest it might have been a dildo but it does look a bit rough for that! More likely it was just a fertility symbol. There are many examples from this time period of penises drawn, carved or painted with the glans bare, but none so far discovered depict the operation of circumcision.

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. (Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library)

This scene dates from between 2,500 - 3,000 BC. Much hot air has been vented on the age at which boys were circumcised in ancient Egypt and the proportion of the male population that was circumcised. Here we see two boys - the taller one on the right steadies himself with one hand on his hip, the other on the circumciser's head. The shorter one on the left is held by someone his own age (probably the next in line for the operation). The squatting circumcisers, when standing up, would be at least a head taller than either boy, so the boys must be between 9 and 11 in age. This fits with other evidence. The Nicholson Museum in Sydney has a mummy of a boy aged around 6-7, and X-ray images show that he was not circumcised [3]. On the other hand, the statuette of a just pubertal teenager, Meryrahashtef (below, in the Art section) shows clearly that he was circumcised.

The idea that not all Egyptians were circumcised seems to be based on X-ray imaging of the mummy of the pharaoh Ahomse (C16 BC) but this is an exception. In a stele a man called Uha describes his circumcision in a mass ceremony of 120 boys in the 23rd century BC [5]. This hardly seems to make it a minority practice. (He proudly boasts that all took it stoically without struggling or crying out).

carpenter picture  This rather poor-quality image, also from the Saqqara site, shows probably the world's first documented wardrobe malfunction. A carpenter is at work, his loin-cloth has slipped, and he is revealed to be both well-endowed and circumcised [5]. This hardly suggests that circumcision was just for the elite. In fact Egyptian art, while not embracing nudity in the Greek style, always shows nude men as circumcised if it shows them at all. (See below, in the Art section).


Very little archaeological evidence is available about Israeli circumcision. The ivory engraving (above) shows one of the few pieces of pictorial evidence. This is at leat partly because Jewish people were, and are, very prudish about nudity. Not that this would seem strange to a Hindu or Muslim, but it does seem strange to a European (or African, or Australian).

The biblical account of Abraham's circumcision has been comprehensively analysed at aboutcirc so there is no need to go into it here. The key issues seem to be that Abraham suffered from phimosis and therefore had difficulty in fathering offspring, and that the ages of those involved are obviously wrong by about a factor of two.

This little phallic sculpture was excavated in Israel in 2013. In spite of press suggestions to the contrary it is obviously too small to be a dildo, and in any case anyone wanting a dildo back then would certainly buy one of wood, not stone! The interesting point is that it is about 6,000 years old, and so (arguably) precedes Abraham's covenant. In other words, is shows that circumcision was already commonplace among other inhabitants of the Holy Land before Abraham's covenant.

phallic sculpture

The Americas

The original Americans entered from Alaska, via the Bering Strait. They brought circumcision with them as evidenced by these Inuit stone circumcision knives, but further details of Inuit circumcision are hard to find.

Images courtesy of the Wellcome Library

Nor do we know much of the circumcision customs of the many Native American nations that are now part of the USA, though it is clear that some did circumcise and others did not.

When the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores arrived in the Americas in the mid 16th century there were three great civilizations present, the Aztecs in southern North America, the Maya in Central America, and the Incas in South America. All practised circumcision. The jungle tribes, such as the inhabitants of the Amazon basin, did not. Again, this probably represents cultural loss in adapting to difficult conditions (one tribe even lost the ability to count beyond 3).

The first civilization the Spaniards encountered were the Mayas. They were an old-established civilization and had rather interesting rules about sex - essentially that intercourse should only occur in matrimony. However, they realized that adolescent boys needed sexual outlets, and hence adolescent homosexuality was not just encouraged, it was compulsory. (This may seem awfully familiar to anyone who attended an English Public School). Adult homosexuality was freely tolerated. It all seems pretty modern and the Maya civilization seems to have been a very harmonious society. But it horrified the Spaniards!

As a result the Spaniards regarded all native Americans as sodomites, even though in both the Inca and Aztec empires sodomy was strictly forbidden and attracted the death sentence. (The Incas seemed to use accusations of sodomy to punish political opponents - shades of 21st century Malaysia). The conquistadores wanted to use this imagined pretext to eliminate the native populations, but the Pope was not having that, and insisted that they should all be converted to Christianity. This meant abandoning circumcision. It also, tragically, meant systematic destruction of their reconds and relics.

The Incas were a relatively young civilization, and their predecessors, the Moche, seem to have had much more liberal views about sex. A large number of their drinking vessels have come down to us, preserved as grave goods. Many are decorated with highly erotic sculptures. Often one has to drink from a penis - circumcised, of course (below).

The illustration shows the decoration of one such cup, taken from Reay Tannahill's book Sex in History [8]. She quotes an 'eminent authority', Dr Francisco Guerra, who has analysed the images, and come up with the startling finding that 31% show heterosexual anal intercourse while only 11% show conventional heterosexual intercourse. (For comparison, 14% show oral sex, 2% show male homosexuality and 1% lesbianism).

One can, I suppos, imagine the learned Dr. Guerra being unable to think of sex other than in the missionary position, but it's surprising to find the broad-minded Reay Tannahill falling for it. Yet she does, and goes into wild speculation about why the Moche may have turned to anal sex. It is quite obvious that what these images show is conventional penis in vagina sex in the 'doggy' position. The Moche never encountered missionaries! Why the missionaries cared what position people had sex in is a mystery (and so is how they knew about it) but the fact is that it wouldn't be called the missionary position if the missionaries hadn't found that most of their converts didn't favour it. In the case of the Moche, it seems they used two positions but doggy style was 3 to 1 favourite.

Cock and BallsThese penises are definitely circumcised, not just denuded in erection, since even flaccid ones (which are quite common) are shown tightly circumcised, as we see here.

This image, and the one below, come from the Museo Larco in Lima, Peru, which has a large collection of these pots, and are reproduced courtesy of Jack and Jill Travel.
This pot, which you have to fellate to drink from, clearly shows the circumcision scar - low and tight. Note the ring of holes aroung the top so that drinking from there is not an option! All the surviving intact pots come from graves, but broken ones from house sites show that they were also in domestic use.

You can see more of these pots at Jack and Jill Travel .
Fellating pot

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:

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.

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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!

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.
  Augustus John Boy

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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Thanks to Tom, Eric and Alex, 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.


1. Wikipedia, Early Human Migrations

2. Göran Burenhult: Die ersten Menschen, Weltbild Verlag, 2000. ISBN 3-8289-0741-5 via Wikipedia

3. Guy Cox & Brian J. Morris, 2012. Why Circumcision: From Prehistory to the Twenty-First Century. Chapter 21 in: D.A. Bolnick et al. (eds.), Surgical Guide to Circumcision, Springer-Verlag London. 243-259

4. Bryk F. Circumcision in Man and Woman. (tr. Felix Berger). New York: American Ethnological Press, 1934: 342 pp. (Facsimile reprint New York: AMS Press, 1974).

5. Larue GA. Religious Traditions and Circumcision. Second International Symposium on Circumcision, San Francisco, California, April 30-May 3, 1991. First published in The Truthseeker, July/August 1989, 4-8.

6. Scheer, R. Aborigine Rock Paintings Illustrate Secret Ceremonies, published in Travel Writers Tales. [Accessed 10.Apr.2011]

7. Angulo, JC and García-Díez, M. Male Genital Representation in Paleolithic Art : Erection and Circumcision Before History : Urology 74: 10–14, 2009.

8. Reay Tannahill, Sex in History. Hamish Hamilton, London, 1980 480pp

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