MANTEGNA, Andrea
(b. 1431, Isola di Carturo, d. 1506, Mantova)

The Circumcision

1460-64
Tempera on wood, 86 x 42 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Mantegna's first important commission from Ludovico Gonzaga was the decoration of the chapel in Castello di San Giorgio, executed in the first half of the 1460s. It is unfortunately impossible to reconstruct the whole of Mantegna's original intentions there with any confidence, although some panels almost certainly traceable to the chapel still survive. They include three paintings in the Uffizi: The Ascension of Christ, The Circumcision and The Adoration of the Magi. Today they are mounted as a triptych in the Uffizi with The Adoration of the Magi in the centre. They were given this format in 1827, but the inconsistencies in both composition and iconography indicate that these are individual works rather than parts of a uniformly planned altarpiece. Nevertheless, they were created for the same chapel.

The subject of this painting is the circumcision of Christ eight days after birth, therefore on New Year's Day. Since the late Middle Ages, New Year's Day had often been connected with images of the presentation at the temple 40 days later, as prescribed by the law of Moses (Luke 2:21-38). Joseph is carrying a sacrifice of two doves in a basket. The setting is richly decorated. In the lunettes, two related scenes from the Old Testament are depicted: left, Abraham's sacrifice; right, Moses's presentation of the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written.