2012: Advent Art History: Naked Baby Jesus Advent Calendar – December 23

by on December 23, 2012

The Circumcision of Christ

Master of the Tucher Altar


Mixed Media

For the day before Christmas Eve, I bring you a very naked baby Jesus indeed, and a subject that we might not today expect anyone to have painted. But it was an important milestone in Jesus’ life, and it was not a rare scene in medieval and Renaissance art.

This is another painting by an unknown artist. These anonymous painters are known as Master such-and-such because they would have been at the head of their own workshop, consisting of apprentices and journeymen (Master craftsmen who had completed their apprenticeships, but who didn’t have their own workshop, and who worked for a wage calculated by the day).

Stylistically, this painting is another of the type which bridge the gap between International Gothic and Northern Renaissance/Early Flemish, having stylistic elements which belong to both traditions.

Like yesterday’s image, this one incorporates an effort to give a sense of the historical, while at the same time rooting the scene firmly within a frame of reference familiar to contemporary viewers.

In Painting of the Gothic Era, Robert Sukale and Matthias Weniger talk briefly about this image, discussing the artist’s attention to detail in the rendering of Jewish ceremonial dress and accessories. These would have been the Christian understanding of contemporary Jewish ceremonial garments, rather than historically accurate garb. Other artists were content to fake Hebrew script for their paintings, but this painter was not. He used actual Hebrew characters, although they don’t make up meaningful sentences (this is apparently also the case in yesterday’s image).

Something Sukale and Weniger don’t talk about is the stereotyping of Jewish physiognomy in this painting. Mary and Joseph lurk at the back, apparently nervous, but looking distinctly Christian-European, whereas the two priests have been painted according to the contemporary stereotype of Jewish appearance. It is not a flattering stereotype. Like all figures within this tradition, the figures in this work would not have been painted from life, but would have been taken from model books.

Sukale and Weniger do note that Joseph’s head is uncovered, distinguishing him from the Jewish Priests, whose heads are all covered. The Christ Child is also distinguished by his fair hair, light hair being favoured over dark in C15th Northern Europe.

Before chosing it for the advent calendar, I hadn’t looked at this painting in about eight years. I still find it really interesting, though, especially the hinge on the table and the moving leg below, showing that it opens out. And the beautiful chair with its cloth-of-gold cushion. I also like the glasses worn by the scribe, and the concerned and concentrated expressions of everyone involved. Everyone except the Christ Child, that is, who really doesn’t appear bothered by it at all, and appears to be paying attention to something else entirely.

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