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The Circumcision

The Circumcision

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri called Il Guercino (1591-1666). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Lyon. 1646.

When the eight day came after the birth and the child was to be circumcised, they gave him the name Jesus; the name the angel had given him before his conception G38 .

Only Luke tells about the circumcision and he does not relate the circumstances in which the event took place. But in Christian art the circumcision always happens in the temple. Circumcision was required by the laws of Israel as a token of the Covenant. In the ‘Golden Legend’ is told why Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day. For according to Maimonides, ‘the flesh of a boy of only seven days old was still tender as it had been in the womb, whereas on the eighth day it became stronger and more solid’. An angel brought the flesh removed at the Circumcision to the first new emperor Charlemagne, enshrined in his capital Aachen but later transferred to Charroux, and then to Rome in a church called Sancta Sanctorum G49 . The Holy Membrane is indeed venerated in various churches of Europe and is thus one of the most exotic curiosities of medieval relics and legends.

In Guercino’s painting Joseph and Mary are present while a priest performs the operation. An acolyte priest is also assisting. The priest is seated and holds the knife. A young man stands behind the priest with a dish to catch the blood and flesh and he also has come with towels to clean the baby. The acolyte looks intently at the baby and is dressed like a Jew, but not so the priest. The priest looks more like a monk of the own times of Guercino. The event of circumcision was significant since it was the first occasion on which Christ’s blood was shed. It was the rite where Jesus’s name was first given. The Jesuits laid emphasis on this event because this order was the Society of Jesus, and thus bore the name given at the circumcision G41 . The priest may be a reference to the Jesuits.

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Il Guercino or ‘The Squinting One’ because he was cross-eyed painted ‘The Circumcision’. Guercino was born in Cento, close to Ferrara in 1591. Cento and Ferrara were towns of the Papal States. He was much influenced by the Bolognese style of Lodovico Carracci, who reigned over the art in Bologna until his death in 1619. In 1618 Guercino went to Venice and saw there the works of Palma Il Vecchio, the elder Palma. The Bolognese and Venetian styles are both soft and harmonious, devoid of violence in colours and composition of the scenes. Il Guercino continued the style. Guercino had been to Rome in 1621 together with the important Bolognese artists Guido Reni and Il Domenichino, painters whose way of presenting figures resembles Guercino’s works. Guido Reni returned to Bologna where he took the place of Carracci as the leading painter, while Guercino stayed in Rome to work for the Popes. Around 1623 he went back to Cento.

Guercino made of the ‘Circumcision’ a picture that follows classical examples. He painted a scene of classical antiquity. A Romanesque arch forms the background of the image and also the altar is a solid block of Roman marble, carved with Roman-like bas-reliefs. The figures are set in a rigid, dignified pose. Two solid forms of figures are depicted in a balanced composition. To the right are Mary and Joseph. Especially the blue cloak of Mary draws the attention to this side. Classical painting often used pure, harder colours such as this blue. To the right are the seated priest, the stooped acolyte Jewish priest, the helping young man and other bystanders. This block of figures is lower than the standing Mary and Joseph, so Guercino has brought emphasis back to this left side by picturing in a Roman column that rises to the upper frame. The lines in this painting are preponderantly vertical, as the dimensions of the frame are. Joseph, Mary and Anne are long figures and Joseph wears a staff. To the left, the priest’s helpers wear two high candles. Although Guercino has added movement, specifically in the way the heads of the figures are held, all the figures give an impression of classic rigidity, they are in idealised poses, as suits the solemnity of the scene. All eyes are directed to the child and Guercino has directed to the baby an intense light. Jesus thus also attracts the eyes of the viewer, who then proceeds to the figures to the right and left.

This work was made in 1646, for the church of the convent of the Sisters of Jesus and Mary in Bologna. The painting was delivered to a congregation of women, which explains the restraint and classic handling of the subject. This was not to be a Baroque picture of passion and drama, especially since the panel was destined for the main altar of the churchF5. The classical, idealised way of handling the theme brought the dignity that was necessary for a scene that could be a strange one for a convent of women.

Why did Guercino grip back to the austere representation that we call now Classicism? The older traditions of International Gothic had profoundly expressed spirituality. The Renaissance and the burgeoning Baroque art had not undermined this spirituality, but in effect smoothened and diverted representations of elevated spirituality. Mannerism and Baroque had brought passion and effusion of emotions in the pictures that the more intimate-oriented painters found too ostensible and untrue. Classic antiquity offered a dignity, austerity, sense of epic and respect that had almost disappeared from religious art and that was newly revered. Guercino seems to have needed the features of Classicism to re-invent the imaging of the transcendent feelings in art. This tendency was started by several painters, among which Annibale Carracci who like Guercino originated from the town of Bologna. Annibale Carracci founded with two other members of his family an academy in Bologna that transformed art. A new tradition thus was founded and representations of spirituality revived.

Guercino had only been four years in Bologna, where he had replaced Guido Reni as the master painter of the town after Reni’s death in 1642. He was over fifty when he made the ‘Circumcision’ and we feel the respect of the mature painter by the classical restraint in which he composed the scene.

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