The Circumcision; Simon BENING; 1525; tempera and gold on parchment; from Cardinal Albert von Brandenburg’s Book of Prayers; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Paul Getty trust

The circumcision and the Presentation in the Temple

Unerstand the scene


It is the Temple of Jerusalem that gives its unity to the representation of two or three different events.

The Circumcision of Jesus is, as for any Jewish baby, a family ceremony that takes place eight days after birth. It is performed at home; a specialist cuts the prepuce, the father gives the child’s name and imposes his hands on him.

The representation of this scene is often realistic but the ceremony is frequently placed in the Temple of Jerusalem; which eliminates the family character, but the presence of the altar serves to link the blood of the Circumcision to that of the Passion. Sometimes a lamb is added.
The role of Mary and Joseph, which was very important in the Middle-Ages, disappeared later to emphasize that of the priest.

When the circumcision is isolated, it can easily be mistaken for other circumcisions; those of Isaac and Samson in particular but, in this case, the mother‘s role is absent.


Mary’s Churching marks her return to public life. Actually, every new mother was impure and her purification or “churching” had to be performed forty days after her confinement. This ceremony is not represented directly but, insofar as Mary is in the Temple, her purification must have taken place; which is impossible since the Circumcision is done only 8 days after birth.

The presentation of Jesus in the Temple is a public rite of consecration of the first-born child to God, the child being “redeemed” by the offering of an animal. The representation follows Luke’s narrative by laying the stress on Mary who presents the child on the altar and brings some doves. Old Simeon dressed as a priest, and the prophetess Anna are often present but more or less recognisable.

The emphasis is sometimes put on Simeon, who takes the child in his arms and sings a canticle traditionally entitled “ nunc dimittis”, that is to say “now let go…” while Anna bears the text of the prophecy.

The picture often mixes all these ceremonies in the middle of a crowd often numerous; which sometimes makes it difficult to read the scene.

The biblical narrative

The Gospel according to Luke, chapter 2

Jesus has just been born.

And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, who was so named by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;
(As it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord")
And to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, "A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons".

A just and pious man named Simeon is “waiting for the consolation of Israel”; he receives the child in his arms, blesses God and says: 

"Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word:
For my eyes have seen your salvation..."

An old woman, a prophetess named Anna, also starts to praise God for the birth of this child.

(Luke 2:21:30)


These narratives show that Jesus is a real man and a Jew submitted to the Law. The circumcision is the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham; it is the fundamental rite of belonging to the Jewish people. The ending of the text announces that Jesus is the Messiah expected by those who hope like Simeon and Anna.


See similar pictures


The rite is presented with some precision and Mary’s role is marginalised.


The Circumcision; Michael PACHER; 1479-1481; polychrome wood; left lower part of the altarpiece of the parish church of Sankt Wolfgang, Austria

Web Gallery of Art



The Circumcision; Luis de CARVAJAL; 1580; oil on canvas; the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

 Hermitage StPetersburg



Circumcision and presentation are associated; Mary plays the main role.


The Presentation in the Temple; RAPHAEL; 1502; oil on canvas; Oddi altar; Pinacoteca; Vatican

Web Gallery of Art



The Circumcision; workshop of Giovanni BELLINI; 1500; oil on wood; National Gallery, London.

 National Gallery London



 The Presentation in the Temple


The Presentation in the Temple; Rogier van der WEYDEN; 1455; oil on wood; left panel of the altarpiece of St Colomba; Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Web Gallery of Art


These representations are seen as real offerings of the newly-born baby; on the left, the mother’s arrival and the child before the church, the candles…everything refers to the feast of Candlemas.  

The Presentation in the Temple; LIMBURG Brothers; before 1416; illuminated miniature from “the Riches Heures du Duc de Berry”; Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.

 Christus Rex



he Presentation in the Temple; Simon VOUET; 1640-1641; oil on canvas; Musée du Louvre, Paris

Web Gallery of Art


Old Simeon receives the child and gives thanks with the prophetess Anna.  

The Presentation in the Temple; Peter Paul RUBENS; 1614; oil on panel; left panel of the triptych; Cathedral of Antwerp, Belgium.

Web Gallery of Art



 The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple; REMBRANDT; c. 1627/28; Oil on panel; Hamburger Kunshalle, Hamburg, Germany.

Olga's Gallery - Online Art Museum





Further developpements



The circumcision

It is an old rite practised by several peoples or religions, among them Jews and Arabs. In Western Europe, it has long been a distinctive sign of Jews and, on this account, ridiculed by anti-Semites. It has even served as a proof of membership during persecutions. Nowadays, it has taken a prophylactic character, particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries, where it has spread without any specific meaning.

A mohel (a ritual circumciser) carries out the circumcision of a boy on the eighth day after birth.




The feast of the Presentation in the Temple has remained famous under the name of “Candlemas”; it is celebrated forty days after Christmas, on February 2nd. Its name comes from a Catholic procession in which everybody carried a candle. Jesus was, according to Simeon, “A light to lighten the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32).

For this feast, a candle was lit, hence the name of “Candlemas”. This candle had to be taken home lit and it was supposed to have virtues of protection.

This procession replaced a pagan feast of fertility celebrated with torches on February 15th in honour of the god Pan and the goddess Proserpine.


But its celebrity comes above all from the making of pancakes, whose shapes recall the sun, hence light. It is an old tradition since Pope Gelasius already offered some to tired pilgrims.

The thin pancakes are tossed and, according the tradition, whoever manages to toss his pancake without dropping it on the ground will have good luck until the next Candlemas; on the contrary, it is always regarded as bad luck to let a pancake fall on the floor…



Candlemas is then a celebration of the end of winter but with some risks of a return of the cold; that is why Robert Desnos calls snowdrops “Candlemas violets”.


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