Signorelli’s Circumcision (c.1490)

Anything in art which does not make sense needs to because artists do not convey non-sense. And in this painting by Luca Signorelli of Christ's circumcision at least two features do not. The hand of the kneeling man with the scalpel appears  "misleadingly, to rest on the Child's leg as though he is making a test-incision.." It should be, as Tom Henry notes, hovering above the Child as he leans forward to make the cut.1

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Captions for image(s) above:

Signorelli, Circumcision (c.1489-90/91) Oil on poplar transferred to modern board. 258.5 x 180cm. National Gallery, London

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The situation is resolved, though, if you know that, as a general rule, every work of art portrays the moment of its own creation as imagined in the artist's mind. The scalpel, now a stand-in for the artist's brush, "paints" Christ's leg while the kneeling "artist" himself focuses with total concentration, as painters do, on the spot he "paints".

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Captions for image(s) above:

Signorelli, Circumcision, detail

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And that is why the man with the knife resembles Signorelli, especially in the broad chin, lower lip, prominent nose and worried eyes. Yet to obscure the resemblance, his head is bald while still retaining long locks behind.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Circumcision, rotated
R: Self-portrait detail inverted horizontally from Self-portrait with Vitelozzo Vitelli (c.1500-03) Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Orvieto

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The second curious detail is the same alter ego's hand which appears to have six fingers. Superficially, the confusion is resolved by knowing that one of the fingers is the Virgin's whose arm rests behind his. Esoterically, however, the placement conveys that the artist's brush is guided by the Virgin's arm, that it is not Signorelli alone who paints the work but divine wisdom. Botticelli used the Virgin's arm similarly in the Madonna of the Magnificat (1481) and Michelangelo later in his Doni Tondo (1503).

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Captions for image(s) above:

Signorelli, Circumcision, detail

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The incorrect placement of the scalpel and the illusion of a hand with six fingers are intentional hints for those with the means to make sense of them. Art's underlying message, though hidden, is not secret because it is freely available to all art lovers. It is obscured paradoxically to avoid confusing others including the patrons, most of whom would have had no idea of its existence.












 

Captions for image(s) above:

Signorelli, Circumcision (c.1489-90/91)

Click image to enlarge.

Notes:

1. Tom Henry, The Life and Art of Luca Signorelli (Yale University Press) 2012, pp. 98 and 351-2, n.16

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 04 Sep 2017. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.