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The composition of this extremely rare image of the Circumcision of Christ is clearly based on the more familiar Presentation of Christ in the Temple iconography, with which, at first glance, it could easily be mistaken. As in that icon the Virgin stands in the centre of the panel holding the newly born Christ-child, while Joseph stands just behind her. But rather than the prophet Simeon standing facing the Virgin and Child we are shown two temple priests.
Though panel icons of this subject are very rare, the theme was depicted in Byzantine manuscripts. An important example can be found in the late 10th century Menologion of Basil (see fig. a).
The unusual choice of subject may, however, show a western influence as the theme was well known in renaissance and baroque art. Influence from the west was not uncommon in Russian icon-painting during this period.
The scriptural passage of the Circumcision of Christ occurs directly before the Presentation of Christ narrative in the Gospel of Luke:
And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (2:21)
All male babies were circumcised under Old Testament Jewish Law from the time of the patriarch Abraham - which served as a sign of God's covenant (i.e. Genesis 17:10-14; Leviticus 12:3).
In his homily on the feast of this event (January 1st), Saint Andrew of Crete (650-740 C.E.) highlights the significance of the circumcision occurring 'eight days' after Jesus' birth:
And what else does the eighth-day circumcision tell us? The eighth day is the completion of the week, and the beginning of the new. The child completes the week, and is perfected on the eighth day, being granted his name and being numbered with the perfect. The eighth day is the beginning of infancy, while through the period of the week he was a baby, now the child begins to learn. The eighth day leads on to the things of infancy: to crawl and to stand, and to speak, and to think. The week comes to completion, and the eighth day signifies perfection. Circumcision again signifies the name-giving, which the child undergoes on the eighth day.
Saint Andrew then points out the symbolic significance of circumcision in the Jewish tradition:
Circumcision removes a covering of flesh, and grants an eighth-day sign to the members. Circumcision declared that the presence of Christ was coming, and that He would grant rebirth through the Spirit. By the seal of circumcision, the people were granted divine correction from idolatry, and the ceasing of destruction through idol-mania.
In the New Testament the symbolism of circumcision is completely 'interiorised' through Christ. For example, in Saint Paul: we 'are circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ' (Colossians 2:11).
The liturgical hymns for this feast also emphasise the spiritual significance of the number eight:
Enthroned on high with the Eternal Father and Your divine Spirit, / O Jesus, You willed to be born on earth of the unwedded handmaid, your Mother. / Therefore You were circumcised as an eight-day old Child. / Glory to Your most gracious counsel; / glory to Your dispensation; / glory to Your condescension, O only Lover of mankind.
And the symbolic meaning of Jesus' circumcision as removing sin:
The Lord of all accepts to be circumcised, / thus, as He is good, excises the sins of mortal men. / Today He grants the world salvation...
A later 18th century icon of the same subject also attributed to the Moscow School makes the theme of circumcision more clear, as it includes a pair of scissors on the altar (see fig. b).
Our version is a good example of late 16th, or early 17th century, icon painting from Moscow that adhered to tradition. Though the subject may show a western influence, the style is classical. The bold greens and reds impart a warm, festive atmosphere, while the expressively formed composition - especially the geometric architecture - gives the work an impressive power and majestic quality. In addition, the faces have been painted with subtle lines and lighting, adding to the dream-like quality.