Having scarcely eluded the mid-to-late 16th century wave of iconoclasm, The Circumcision of Christ is one of less than thirty paintings by Jacob Cornelisz Van Oostsanen still in existence. Measuring 43 inches high by 23 ¾ inches wide, it is a vertically oriented narrative painting that was created using oil paints and fabric mounted on a wood panel. It is framed in an ornate, stained wooden frame, and is currently in the collection of the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon. Rendered in the year 1517, The Circumcision of Christ, featuring naturalistic yet exaggerated figures, scrupulous details in elements such as luxurious textiles and elaborately carved furniture, as well as its winding landscape that extends beyond the interior space where the religious custom is shown to take place, is a paragon of Northern Renaissance Art.
Despite being the first well-known painter and printmaker in Amsterdam, little is known about Jacob Cornelisz Van Oostsanen’s life or artistic training. In fact, even the years of his birth and death, 1470–1533, are an estimate based off accounts of family members and inventories taken of his personal possessions. Research into who might have instructed him revealed no evidence, however, it is known that Jan van Scorel apprenticed at Van Oostsanen’s Amsterdam workshop, indicating that he was possibly Van Oostsanen’s student. As such with many artists of the time, Van Oostsanen was highly skilled in a variety of mediums and artisanal crafts. In addition to his oil paintings, he was most known for his woodcuts and was often commissioned to paint church ceilings. He also designed decorative medallions and embroidered textile compositions for the church. His paintings can be recognized by the unique way he would monogram his works with ‘IWVA’, using an upside-down ‘W’.
The Circumcision of Christ is a richly colored oil painting with an asymmetrical composition that divides the canvas into two near-triangular half sections. Reminiscent of Gothic architecture, this triangular shape symbolizes the Holy Trinity. Congregating mostly on the left side of the composition, the lower half of the piece is occupied by a crowd of affluently dressed figures depicted in an interior space, who have gathered together to be a part of baby Jesus’ circumcision ceremony. Half-way up, the figures part on the right-hand side, revealing winding paths that make their way through the distant landscape that lies beyond the Roman-inspired arch and columns of the ritual space. In his conscientiousness of minute detail in the foreground scene, in contrast to the haziness of the faraway mountain terrain, Van Oostsanen exhibits his understanding of atmospheric perspective.
When viewing The Circumcision of Christ, one’s eye is immediately drawn to the ceremonial task at hand. The depiction of Jesus being initiated in this manner — the same way that all infant males were — is meant to link him to the understanding and realization of the human condition. His suffering and shedding of blood as an infant is meant to foreshadow what Jesus would experience at his crucifixion, and the ultimate sacrifice that he would make in order to deliver humanity from sin. Seemingly cooperating with one another, four figures huddle over the gilded and ornamentally carved table that baby Jesus has been situated on for the surgery, including one appearing to be a high priest, who is seated on an equally elaborately-carved chair as he performs the delicate procedure.
Two other male figures stand nearby, consulting with one another over a sacred text, perhaps the Bible, while a small gathering of other figures passively observe, some peeking through the crowd in order to witness the occasion. The positioning of the participants, some slightly turned away, gives a sense of psychological realism, which invites the viewer into the scene. Figures extending beyond the frame give the impression that they’d only just arrived, further emphasizing that Van Oostsanen had indeed captured an exact moment in time. Only one figure within the composition of the painting, located on the far left, engages with the observer. Her eyes meet the viewer’s as though she is personally delivering the message of Jesus’ inevitable destiny. Her overdress of red, symbolizing motherhood, passion, and devotion, as well as her blessing hand gesture, indicates that she portrays the Virgin Mary.
The twisted arrangement of Jesus’ body and scowling facial expression, the bulging foreheads, elongated limbs, and exhaustive details of the hands and hair of the figures, along with the ostentatious character of the meticulously patterned textiles and ornate and gilded furniture, exemplifies Mannerism, a stylistic phase that was beginning to emerge in the late Renaissance period. Paintings such as The Circumcision of Christ were not produced for aesthetics alone. Particularly due to the widespread illiteracy of the time, these paintings were meant to serve as an accompaniment to religious teachings, reiterating stories and messages from the Bible. The vivid and exaggerated elements of Mannerism created a sense of immediacy that took storytelling through artwork to a new level.
Beyond the ceremonious gathering, along the winding path of the background landscape, the narrative of Jesus’ suffering continues. As Peter and two other disciples rest, weakened and weary with sorrow, Jesus is shown praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. As told in the Bible, an angel from heaven appeared to Jesus in order to give him strength, and “being in anguish he prayed more earnestly and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.”. A medical condition known as hematohidrosis, thought to be brought on by acute fear and intense mental contemplation, is attributed to be the cause of Jesus’ experience, and is often associated with stigmata — wounds that appear on the body in locations that correspond with the wounds Jesus suffered while being crucified. The droplets of Jesus’ sweat blood during his time spent praying in the Garden of Gethsemane illustrates that the prophecy symbolized by Jesus’ circumcision has come to pass; he will again shed his blood in sacrifice for the sins of humanity.
Only a handful of years before the Northern Renaissance painting The Circumcision of Christ was created, Italian Renaissance painter Michaelangelo adorned the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with his well-known Creation of Adam. In contrast to the earthly setting of The Circumcision of Christ, Michaelangelo’s fresco depicts a metaphysical scene that illustrates his Neoplatonic views — a synthesis of pagan idealism and Christian doctrine. Likewise, the physical attributes of figures depicted in Italian Renaissance works in contrast to those portrayed in Northern Renaissance works is quite easy to discern, in the way Michaelangelo illustrates his knowledge of underlying human anatomy, versus the much more naturalistic depiction of the figures in Van Oostsanen’s work. Even God is portrayed by Michaelangelo as having bulging muscles that can be detected despite his body being concealed by a knee-length robe.
Although the events of Jesus’ circumcision and his time agonizing in the Garden of Gethsemane have individually been depicted by countless artists throughout history, Van Oostsanen offers a unique frame of reference. The parallel scenes that comprise the account of Jesus’ human-like ordeal in The Circumcision of Christ not only tell a story, but also perhaps illustrate the cultural and intellectual aspects of the concept of Humanism during the Renaissance. Emphasizing the autonomy of human reason, the retelling of Jesus’ experiences as a human demonstrates how events and individual acts, despite being chronologically removed from one another, become relative over time, and how one’s thoughts and actions develop into and remain a part of one’s present reality. It is this fresh Humanistic perspective that sets Van Oostsanen’s The Circumcision of Christ apart from the rest.
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Bible.org. “70. The Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39–46).” 70. The Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39–46). https://bible.org/seriespage/70-garden-gethsemane-luke-2239-46. Accessed November 29, 2019.
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https://www.museothyssen.org/en/collection/artists/cornelisz-van-oostsanen-jacob. Accessed November 29, 2019.