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The Infant Jesus in Art: Is He Jewish?

June 19, 2019

My wife is an art historian (specializing in 19th century British sculpture), so I’ve come to look more closely at art, and one of the things I’ve noticed in the many paintings of the infant/child Jesus is that he’s usually depicted as uncircumcised.

One is able to consider such a topic because the many paintings of the infant/child Jesus typically show him nude or semi-nude, with his pudenda showing quite deliberately.  Now it may seem odd to be focused on the matter of the depiction of Jesus’ pudenda, but one would expect artists to have known that Jesus is Jewish!  And so, as with Jewish male infants, was circumcised on the eighth day.  One could expect artists, therefore, to reflect that in depictions of Jesus (typically with his mother, and often with the child John the Baptizer).  But, so far as I can tell, this isn’t typically the case.

So, how are we to take this?  Were the artists unfamiliar with what circumcised male infants look like?  Or was this deliberate?  Were they trying to avoid depicting Jesus as a Jewish male?  The artists are all long dead, of course, so we can’t inquire of them.  And I don’t know that they left any notes.  I also don’t know if my observation about the matter has been noticed and commented on by analysts of the art in question. But, with an interest in such historical matters, I was struck by this.

Comments by qualified art historians welcome.

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20 Comments
  1. Duncan Law permalink

    The Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology – may be useful for further investigation.

  2. Wayne Brindle permalink

    Has anyone mentioned the painting by Parmigianino of the circumcision of Jesus (ca. 1523), now in the Detroit Institute of Arts?

  3. Isaac permalink

    It probably has something to do with the Classical Greek ideal foreskin which was foreskinned and uncircumcised. Exposure of the glans was considered unseemly for the Greeks and so as later sculptors imitated the kalokagathia mirrored in Ancient Greek visual culture, Jesus should have rightly in their eyes reflected this corporeal ideal.

  4. Hi Larry:
    It is not only the infant Jesus but Michelangelo’s David and other great sculptures. Renaissance artists were Gentiles and they expected Jesus to be as well.
    https://www.huffpost.com/entry/five-stages-of-anti-semit_b_6707728
    https://www.jpost.com/Christian-News/The-hidden-anti-Semitism-in-European-church-art-394804
    Jack

  5. Bill Combs permalink

    I have read that it was not considered offensive for men to exercise in the nude in the Greek games because the head of the penis was covered by the foreskin. But that is was considered quite offensive if it was not covered. I have read there were operations available for men born with a defect from birth where the head of the penis was not covered so as to correct this “deformity.” If this is true, would this attitude about the covered penis also be something that was carried on into the Christian era?

    • In Greek tradition, formal exercise was nude (as the name, “gymnasium” indicated). Circumcision was regarded as disfiguring the male body, in the eyes of Greeks and other gentiles. There was a surgical operation, “epispasm”, that some Jewish males underwent, we are told, to try to restore a foreskin. Ouch!!

  6. Hi,
    Some good background on the Wikipedia page here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circumcision_of_Jesus#Depictions_in_art

    It would appear that the strongest lack of examples is from the first millennium, earliest art piece of circumcised Jesus being from the late 900s.

    John

  7. Joel J. Miller permalink

    That’s curious because the circumcision is marked by a feast and represented by an iconographic tradition of its own: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Icons_of_the_circumcision_of_Christ

  8. Check out Leo Steinberg, THE SEXUALITY OF CHRIST.

  9. So if even “realistic” later interpreters, presenters of Jesus, tended to modify him, even to edit his appearance to suit their own cultural biases? Then what about even very early reports of Jesus, even by his contemporaries and reported associates or followers ?

    • GG: Again, you’re veering off topic, apparently into one of your own hobby horses. Stay on topic.

  10. Duncan Law permalink

  11. Simon Gathercole permalink

    A comment from an unqualified non-art-historian: How often is it clear that Jesus is an older baby or child, rather than a “pre-8th day” baby?

    • Most/many paintings seem to depict an infant older than 8 days. Or so they seem to me.

    • Infamously in fact, Art History says, for a long time an infant Jesus is typically almost a homunculus. He often stares out at you with a very adult look; often in a formal gesture of blessing. Many pious artists found it impossible to think of Jesus as an actual infant. More like a small adult.

      The Bible itself had possibly acknowledged more; allowing that from infancy, Jesus “grew,” even possibly in understanding. And implying that for a while he was almost an actual child.

  12. elizabeth koepping permalink

    Nice point Larry. I would assume that just as that particular Middle Eastern mother and child are shown as blonde blue-eyed in much western european art, so too a circumcised Jewish baby gets his foreskin back in order for him to be more fully owned by that same western european audience, The adult Jesus is commonly represented in Asian iconography as a South or East Asian man: I don’t know if pictures from those areas of Jesus as a baby show him with or without a foreskin.

  13. Duncan Law permalink

    Michelangelo’s David is not circumcised.

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