Study for the Circumcision

WAG 1995.215


This is an early study for one of Rubens’s earliest altarpieces in Genoa, Italy. A compositional drawing in black and red chalk on a squared paper showing the scene of circumcision of Jesus. Drawn as if seen upwards from the floor level, the image shows the seated Madonna holding the baby Jesus but averting her gaze away from the scene of circumcision performed by the high priest [a mohel] standing on the right. They are surrounded by onlookers on the left some of whom, probably rabbis, look upwards towards the heaven, while a few, including an old Hebrew woman and two men in the centre, watch the procedure. One of the men has a rather fierce expression. Behind the Madonna stand a few female figures watching the scene, and an infant standing, as if next to be circumcised. In the background is a faint sketch of architectural details of columns, an architrave, and an arch of a temple. The rough background, scribble marks, and the half-changed features of the feminine figure in the left background show us Rubens’s design process. The most defined figure is that of the Virgin Mary who was later changed in the final painting to look more modest.