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Monday, May 23, 2011

Who Has the One True Foreskin?

"...and when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising
of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of
the angel before he was conceived in the womb."
Luke 2:21  (KJV)

The Circumcision of Christ, Preobrazhenski Monastery, Bulgaria.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Halkah is the Jewish law that  states that males should be circumcised eight days after their birth in a Brit Milah Ceremony, where they are also named.  Jesus of Nazareth was born a Jew, and so, of course, was circumcised.  Of all the relics attributed to Jesus, his prepuce, or foreskin, is most significant because it is regarded to be the only physical piece of Jesus left on earth.

One of the earliest depictions of the circumcision is from this Byzantine
illuminated manuscript, the Menologion of Basil II, 979-984 C.E.  This
shows Mary and Joseph holding the infant as a priest approaches with a
knife.  At the time of Jesus's birth, circumcisions were done in the home
by the father.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia, original in the Vatican Library.

Starting in the Middle Ages in Europe a number of places have claimed to possess his prepuce, sometimes simultaneously.  The earliest "sighting" of it was in 800, when Charlemagne gave it to Pope Leo III on Christmas Day when the Pope crowned him as Emperor.  Charlemagne claimed that while praying at the Holy Sepulcher an angel gave it to him.  Another version says that the Empress Irene gave it as a wedding gift.  The Pope placed it in the Sanctum Sanctorum in the Lateran Basilica in Rome with other relics.  A vision of St. Bridget of Sweden was said to have confirmed its authenticity.

Enameled plaque from the Klosterneuburg Altar by
Nicolas of Verdun, 1181.  Joseph is wielding the knife.

But there are other claimants to the True Foreskin; according to some there have been as many as eighteen.  The Cathedral of Le Puy-en Valey, the city of Antwerp, Santiago de Compostela, Coulombs in France, Chartres, two churches in Auvergne, as well as churches in Metz, Hildesheim, Besançon, Langres, Conques, Charroux, Langres, Fécamp, Stoke on Trent, and most famously, Calcata in Italy, have all claimed to have it.

The Circumcision of Christ by Fredrich Herlin of Nördlingen, 1466.
Detail from the Twelve Apostles Altar.  Usually the actual ritual is not shown.

The one in Antwerp, in the Brabant (modern-day Belgium), was said to be a gift from King Baldwin I of Jersualem who purchased it in Jerusalem during the first crusade in 1100.  A bishop, celebrating Mass, saw three drops of blood from it on the linens of the altar.  A special chapel was built, which became the destination of pilgrims.  In 1426, a brotherhood was formed of 24 abbots and prominent laymen to protect it.  The relic disappeared in 1566, but the chapel remains.

This depiction was painted by Marco Marziale in 1500 for the high altarpiece
of San Silvestro in Cremona.  Image courtesy the National Gallery, London.

The abbey of Charroux claimed that the Holy Prepuce was given to the monks there by Charlemagne.  It was taken in a procession to Rome so that Pope Innocent III could rule on its authenticity in the early 12th century.  The Pope declined to rule on it.  Somehow, it got lost, and remained lost until a workman doing repairs in the abbey found a reliquary inside a wall in 1856.  You guessed it - it contained the foreskin.

Wooden piece from the altar in the Church of the Holy Cross,
Saint Peter, and Genovefa in Ellhofen, Germany.  Artist unknown.

Meanwhile, the foreskin given to Pope Leo II by Charlemagne was swiped in 1527 during a sack of Rome.  A German soldier stole it, and was captured in the village of Calcata.  He hid it in his cell, until it was "discovered" thirty years later in 1557. It was venerated in Calcata, and the Church offered a ten-year indulgence to pilgrims, thereby authenticating it.  Monks, nuns, and pilgrims came to see it.

Fra Angelico, circa 1450.

When the rediscovery of the Charroux foreskin was made, this lead to a big dispute.  Although the Calcata foreskin had been venerated by the Church for hundreds of years at this point, the Charroux adherents declared theirs was the One True Foreskin.

Peter Paul Rubens, 1605.
Image courtesy the Akademie der Bildenden
Künste, Gemåldegalerie, Vienna, Austria.

The Roman Catholic Church, in 1900, settled it by ruling that anyone from that time forward who spoke or wrote about the Holy Prepuce would be excommunicated, even though they concluded that the Calcata foreskin was the legitimate one.  In`1954, after a lot of debate, the punishment was changed to a harsher degree of excommunication.

The Seven Sorrows of Mary, by Albrecht Dürer, circa 1495.

Prior to 1983 there were two degrees of excommunication.  "Toleratus" meant the subject was tolerated and was allowed to have social and business relationships with Catholics.  "Vitandus" meant shunned - literally avoided by Catholics.  These distinctions no longer exist.  Excommunication is a form of censure with the desire that the excommunicated party will change.

The Circumcision by Luca Signorelli, 1491.
This is the altarpiece for the Chapel of the Circumcision
for the Church of San Francesco, in Volterra.
Image courtesy the National Gallery, London.

During the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Day of the Holy Circumcision (January 1) was removed from the Latin church calendar, and the day is now celebrated as the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God.  This was an attempt to reclaim the ancient western emphasis on Mary.  The Day of the Holy Circumcision is still celebrated today by the Eastern Orthodox Church, some Anglican Communion churches, and most Lutheran churches.

The Circumcision by Tintoretto, 1587.  Image courtesy of
Scuola Grandes di San Rocco, Sala Terrena.

Most of the many Holy Prepuces were lost or destroyed during the Reformation and during the French Revolution.  But the Calcata foreskin was honored and in processions up until 1983.  Then a weird thing happened.

A sculpture from the Cathedral of Chartres.

In 1983, the parish priest announced that the relic had vanished - it was stolen from his home.  He had kept it in a shoebox in the back of a wardrobe.  He refused to discuss it, citing the excommunication warning.  But there is much speculation about it from the village residents.

The village of Calcata, Italy.
This image and the one below courtesy of this site.

The village of Calcata is about 40 miles north of Rome.  In the 1930s, the hillside town was condemned by the government because it was feared that the volcanic cliffs that it was built on would collapse.  The people moved three miles away and founded Calcata Nuova.

Calcata, Italy.

In the 1960s squatters took over the abandoned village.  They were artists and hippies, who eventually purchased the homes they took over from the very eager-to-sell past residents.  They began efforts to get the government to reverse the condemnation order, and succeeded.

This much copied depiction is by Giovanni Bellini, circa 1500.
Image courtesy of National Gallery, London.

The new town has been dubbed "paese di fricchettoni", the "village of freaks". The population is international, and the town has an abundance of art galleries, cafés, and restaurants, and is thriving.  Rumor has it there is a mural of Jimi Hendrix on the side of one of the 18th century buildings.

By Rembrandt, 1661.
This image and the one below courtesy of the National Gallery, D.C.

Because this is an outspoken community, it is commonly thought that the publicity that they stirred up regarding the Holy Prepuce made the Vatican nervous.  Village rumors say that either the parish priest sold it for his own gain, or gave it to the Vatican.  The consensus seems to be that the Vatican acquired it, and they had wanted it for some time.  Perhaps the Vatican thought that since it was in an out-of-the-way, small village (especially one that became condemned), it would exist in relative obscurity.  I'm sure they never in their wildest dreams foresaw the village being anything but sleepy and backward.

Also by Rembrandt, 1654.

There is a surprising body of art depicting Jesus's circumcision through the centuries.  This Holy Prepuce has acquired a level of fame about equal to the Holy Grail.  Perhaps the Vatican has that, too, in its archives.

Unless otherwise noted, image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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