Spiritual Exercises: Muziano’s Circumcision Altarpiece

by Alphonso L. Pinto, appearing in Volume 35

Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Gesù all’Argentina in Rome. Photo: Wikimedia.org/Alessio Damato

Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Gesù all’Argentina in Rome. Photo: Wikimedia.org/Alessio Damato

Built right after the Council of Trent, the Church of the Gesù (1568) stands in the heart of Rome on what seems to be an island flanked by streams of busy streets. The stark imposing façade proudly displays the monogram “IHS,” representing not only the name of Jesus in Greek but in Hebrew, the name the angel defined as “He who saves his people from their sins.”

Inside, with its eclectic array of artistic styles, one is greeted by an exuberance of angels and saints, biblical scenes, and relics, most notably the body of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the arm of Saint Francis Xavier, and the arm of the martyred Saint Andrew Bobola—all underneath a ceiling that portrays the Name of Jesus resplendent in heavenly glory.

The interior of the Gesù as it appears today with the Circumcision painting by Capalti, which replaced Muziano’s in 1846. Photo: Wikimedia.org/Fczarnowski

The interior of the Gesù as it appears today with the Circumcision painting by Capalti, which replaced Muziano’s in 1846. Photo: Wikimedia.org/Fczarnowski

Photo: akg-images/Andrea Jemolo

Photo: akg-images/Andrea Jemolo

From the busy streets of Rome, the Gesù is a retreat into sacred beauty. But most importantly, it presents the visitor with the itinerary of a spiritual pilgrimage leading to union with God through means of the visual, so that he may be filled with the love of Divine Mysteries. It offers a moment of edification that can lead to conversion from sin.

Saint Ignatius’ Influence

One of the greatest influences in the decoration of the Gesù was the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, published in 1548.1 These meditations were a means toward union with God and his saints using the imagination. Ignatius writes: “When the contemplation or meditation is on something visible, for example when we contemplate Christ our Lord, the representation will consist in seeing in the imagination the material place where the object is that we wish to contemplate.”2

This representational meditation is an anamnesis, a remembrance of and participation in a sacred event. The mystery becomes alive, by adding color, architecture, emotion, and landscape. The meditation thus becomes a point of encounter between the soul and Christ and his saints. Sacred imagery becomes the visualization of the spiritual pilgrimage to the divine union the Spiritual Exercises pursue. It emphasizes not the anger of God at sinful humanity, but the merciful redemption of mankind through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, by the shedding of his blood.

The Circumcision is the Gesù’s patronal feast, celebrated on the first of January. It is important especially due to the admiration for martyrdom during the era, as it unites the name of Jesus with the blood of Christ as the only means of salvation. In his circumcision, Christ first sheds his blood, prefiguring his eternal sacrifice on the cross. It is one of the first moments proclaiming that man has the hope of participating in the triumph to come, which is eternal life with Christ.

Muziano’s Biblia Pauperum

At the Gesù, from 1587 to 1589, Girolamo Muziano (1532-1592) portrayed the Circumcision of Christ at the church’s high altar. It depicts two important themes: that the Son of God, born of the Virgin, is given the name Jesus; and that this was the first moment that the salvific blood of Christ was shed, in expectation of the crucifixion which he willingly received out of love for man.

The Gesù represents the Jesuit tradition of designing churches as catechetical, devotional, and liturgical edifices in which the true teaching of Divine Revelation was enshrined in its decoration. The decoration acted as a “biblia pauperum,” where the visuals were “books for the poor or unlearned.”3 The altarpiece was a means of teaching and edification, or moving the senses, to desire invisible divine mysteries much in the style of an evocative sermon. The Holy Name and redemption is further emphasized by two other important chapels in the church: the left transept’s chapel originally dedicated to the crucifixion, the right one to the Resurrection.4

In light of the biblia pauperum, an altarpiece must be a faithful portrayal of the life of Christ. Muziano’s masterpiece is a pictorial commentary and meditation on Luke 2:21: “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

Another source of the biblia pauperum can be found in liturgical sources such as the Breviarium Romanum, which usually gives the feast a spiritual or moral interpretation. The readings for the Matins of the Circumcision emphasize that Christ humbled himself as a small child, being born under the law. Like any child, he is circumcised to be dedicated to God, although he is in truth the holy and consecrated one of God. The breviary instructs the worshipper to circumcise his heart from sin, based upon Saint Paul’s teaching in Romans. As Christ underwent circumcision according to the law, he prefigured the forgiveness of sins which would be accomplished by the shedding of his blood and the Resurrection.

Fidelity to sacred Scripture, Tradition, and the liturgy is the foundation for the simple meditations of the Spiritual Exercises. These divine sources provide the first step for the representation prescribed by Ignatius. It is this tradition that Muziano follows while using artistic imagery and a holy imagination.

The visual technique of the Spiritual Exercises emphasizes that the Christian use his imagination to see the events in Christ’s life more spiritually and even mystically. Christ’s presence is in the here and now, and through this divine union, the soul can have a foretaste of transfiguration through grace.

Much like the Spiritual Exercises, Muziano’s art draws men closer to God. It goes beyond the catechetical purpose of merely educating the unlettered. Paintings are truly an educazione, that is, a formation beyond mere intellectual understanding. It is one that develops the interior life of the soul’s union with God.

The Circumcision

Muziano’s Circumcision. Photo: The Jesuits and the Arts 1540-1773

Muziano’s Circumcision. Photo: The Jesuits and the Arts 1540-1773

The original painting of the Circumcision by Muziano takes place in a loggia or a balcony of the Temple of Jerusalem, with the main figures situated on an orthogonal platform like actors on a stage.5 Christ is lying on a table/altar, which can be seen as a pictorial commentary on the Gesù’s actual high altar, situated below the painting which shall contain the unbloody sacrifice.

The child Jesus is not surrounded by a large crowd of figures that could distract from his place. The Son of God Incarnate with the humility of a child is the protagonist6 among a group of individuals supporting his role. The Mother of Jesus, the high priest, attendants, and pious men and women observe the scene.

The loggia or balcony opening up to a paradisaical vision of hills and valleys, trees and the heavens, and the setting of the sun, encourages the contemplation of the truth of the beauty of nature from which one can see something of the beauty of God.7 The landscape by its ideal beauty represents the presence of the numinous, while a liturgical and devotional dimension is given by the vertical perspective of the altarpiece and especially those of its figures.8

This altarpiece’s place within the greater plan of the Gesù also adds to its imaginative representation. The beauty of lapis lazuli, the gilding of sacred vessels, the painted ceilings, and the overall plan of the nave, point beyond themselves to the ineffable and divine beauty of God as earth leads to heaven. The beauty of creation becomes a meditative way to attain to a union with God whose beauty goes beyond human conceptions or symbols, which ultimately lack in the ability to describe this transfiguring reality.

Matter and divinity are united as if reflecting what Muziano’s biographer Ugo da Como describes as his artistic philosophy, that “art cannot be separated from life.”9 As art imitates the beauty of the various material aspects of life, it gives visual expression to the invisible and spiritual. Art cannot separate itself from the portrayal of life united to divine grace even during this earthly pilgrimage. Materiality is not negated but celebrated in its beauty, which is ultimately found in God.

Art That Portrays Life Eternal

Worshippers first gaze as they enter the Gesù ad orientem towards the Circumcision, with various mysteries of Christ’s life in the side chapels. As they lift their gaze skyward, a celestial fresco of the Triumph of the Name of Jesus (1679) by Giovanni Battista Gaulli (1639-1709) gradually transforms vibrant color that fades into the light of heavenly glory. Art then starts to portray life eternal.

Its founding principle is the humanity of Christ, which can be portrayed, and thus his earthly history becomes the door through which man can fulfill his desire to see, touch, hear, and taste Jesus’ divinity. Images make present in a mediative way the divine presence in a very incarnational manner. The senses find consolation, a flourishing of sanctified desire, in the portrayal of the sacred, rather than desolation of a deprivation of the beauty of God—a sensual and spiritual desolation where there does not seem to be love or hope by the seemingly palpable absence of God.10

In the altarpiece, the high priest is performing the rite of Circumcision, assisted by a Levite holding Jesus. Joseph looks on from the left, leaning on his staff, while the Virgin’s sorrow is evident.11 As Ignatius of Loyola observes, the beseeching child looks “to his mother, who has compassion for the blood that flows from her son.”12 Such sorrow reminds us of the prophesied sword that shall pierce her heart, and her witness while standing beneath the cross where Christ’s blood was shed.

The surrounding figures are in awe and grief, especially the prophetess Anna, the old woman standing in contrast to the youthful and sorrowful face of Our Lady.13 The gesture of the hands is eloquent of the apprehension of Mary and Anna; these gestures also reflect a spiritual elegance and modesty promoted in the artistic style of the era.14 Nearby are attendants carrying ointment and oils for the wound, and water to wash the hands of the priest.15

The figures have a sense of balance and proportion. The bodies resemble classical stylization, showing an ideal beauty understood in the Renaissance era to emphasize what is good, and thus what is true. The painting never separates the three transcendentals of goodness, truth, and beauty.

In the altarpiece, there is no exuberance or variety of emotion or color, decoration, or figures, that would distract the viewer from contemplating the sacred event. The painter’s prudence is evident. His painting unites the beauty of the human figure, the dramatic landscape of varying colors of blue revealing the dimming sunlight, the fine architecture of the High Renaissance, and divine history common to sacred art of the era.16

Muziano’s Way of Beauty

Through this via pulchritudinis, this way of beauty, Muziano reveals the dynamic of grace. The human condition is not negated, but divinized, thereby beautifying it, perfecting it, and ridding it of the stain, ugliness, and distortion of sin.

The Circumcision is a depiction not simply of one episode in Jesus’ life—it is a visually expressive moment where the Lord speaks to the soul of the individual looking at the painting. In it, the Lord reveals the mysterious and divine meaning of the historical event as spiritually relevant for the present. The Jesuit Jeronimo Nadal (1507-1580) points out that what is asked is not circumcision in the flesh or by the rule of the law, but of one’s heart.17 Circumcision of the heart means that the Christian should fiercely battle against temptations and the disordered passions of the flesh, which lead to perdition.

Without this battle, there is no union and interior beauty given by God’s indwelling in the soul. The circumcision of Jesus in the life of the believer is about the shedding of sins in order to rise to the heavens while on earth. A foretaste of Heaven would be the transformation of one’s interior life into a true tabernacle of God’s presence.

The Triumph of the Name of Jesus by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, 1679. Photo: Wikimedia.org/Marie-Lan Nguyen

The Triumph of the Name of Jesus by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, 1679. Photo: Wikimedia.org/Marie-Lan Nguyen

Muziano’s altarpiece was replaced with one of the same subject in 1846 by Alessandro Capalti (1810-1868). When it stood in its original place above the high altar, contrasting to the luminously magnificent ceiling painted by Gaulli with the triumph of the name of Jesus glorified in the heavens, the two together revealed the whole expanse of creation and pointed to its redemption through the blood of Christ, who was Incarnate of the Virgin Mary and who was given the name Jesus at the moment of his circumcision.