Study for the Circumcision of Christ

This is one of six drawings for the figure of the attendant in Barocci’s Circumcision of Christ, commissioned for the altar of the Church of the Name of Jesus in Pesaro. The man bends forward to circumcise the infant Christ, who is securely held on the lap of the High Priest. The drawing conveys the intense concentration and devotion of the circumciser, who is the formal and emotional intermediary between the viewer and the Child. The figure is executed with three coloured chalks, a new technique that became highly popular among draughtsmen.

Sketch of a figure from the back
Federico Barocci (Urbino 1535 around-1612 Urbino) Study for the Circumcision of Christ around 1585 black, red and white chalk over stylus, on blue paper 335x230mm Samuel Courtauld Trust: Robert Witt bequest, D.1952.RW.2329

This drawing is a preparatory study by Federico Barocci for the figure of the doctor to the right of the central group in The Circumcision of the Louvre. The altarpiece was commissioned for the Church of Nome di Gesù at Pesaro and completed in 1590, although the sheet is datable to the middle of the 1580s.[1]

Praised as ‘one of Barocci’s most beautiful figures’,[2] the doctor is part of a larger series of five drawings dedicated to the figure bending forward to complete the operation on the infant Christ, who is securely held on the lap of the High Priest. The figure conveys the intense concentration and devotion of the doctor, who is the formal and emotional intermediary between the viewer and the Child.

The verso shows on the top a study for a highly worked drapery, probably for the kneeling figure of the Virgin. The artist then turned the sheet of the verso upside down to produce a further drawing, very lightly rendered, for the doctor’s leg. The drapery study is drawn over the sketch of the attendant and it has probably been partly cut off when the sheet was trimmed. The cascading folds of drapery seem to flow from the shoulder of the Virgin to the floor over a step, in the same manner as the draperies of the Madonna in the painted counterpart.

The progression of Barocci’s ideas for the figure of the doctor is documented by a suite of drawings, which give a complete vision of Barocci’s creative process. Barocci used to draw from life according to a process which presents some analogies with Raphael’s practice, especially in the development of the human figure from naked to clothed. The figure of the attendant is in fact fashioned through a series of nude studies in order to arrive at the final, clothed one. There are three drawings in Berlin[3] and in one of them the nude figure of the doctor is drawn together with that of the priest. The closest study to our figure is held in the Uffizi (Inv. no. 11412 F). At this stage, the drapery still does not match the fluency of the figure, while in the Courtauld drawing, in order to harmonise the drapery with the movement, Barocci modified the lower garments of the Florence study. The earlier swathe curling down from the doctor’s right hip is rendered with a suppler texture, corresponding to the tunic’s hem.

After completing the first sketches, Barocci would move on to the bozzetti, other rough, preliminary studies. Then, he would decide on a specific scale for the modello, which was made to give an idea of the finished composition and to determine his figures’ poses. Barocci would then work at an intermediate scale (often half the size of the final painting), where he could observe how light and shadow fall on the bodies. Once he had executed every detail of the composition at various scales, he would then create another cartoon, this time according to the dimensions of the final work. At this stage, he would further refine the composition with additional studies, usually pastels, as in the case of the Courtauld drawing, a study that was probably realised with the painting already underway. [4]  Pastels were often employed by Barocci at the end of his complex creative process, and to some extent they served the same function as auxiliary cartoons, a type of drawing also used by Raphael, especially in his late Transfiguration.[5]

Barocci’s adoption of coloured chalks anticipated the trois crayons technique and it was employed with a specific aim in mind. Pastels, such as the Study for the Doctor, foreshadowed the final chromatic solutions used in their painted counterparts.[6] The large dimensions of the study confirm that the Courtauld drawing served the purpose to mirror the scale of the final composition.[7]

With his Study for the Doctor Barocci proved to stand at the crossroads between tradition and modernity. His technique of drawing from life and his reliance on Raphael’s methods reveal his debts to the Renaissance tradition. However, Barocci was also deeply embedded in his own times and responded to the need for a new type of painting, which called for forms that translated Christian mysteries in a realistic, accessible, and appealing way. Barocci’s draughtsmanship played an important role in achieving this sought-after return to dal vero, accomplished by employing technical means of remarkable novelty, such as his use of pastels, which endowed his works with pictorial and naturalistic qualities.



[1] G. Calegari, ‘La pittura di Barocci e dei Barocceschi a Pesaro’, in M. L. Brancati, Pesaro nell’età dei Della Rovere, vol. 2, Venice, 2001, 188.

[2] J. Shearman, ‘Barocci at Bologna and Florence’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 118, No. 874, 1976, 54.

[3] Inv. nos. Kdz 20026, 20020 and 20028.

[4] J. Marciari and I.Verstegen, ‘‘Grande quanto l’opera’: Size and Scale in Barocci’s Drawings’, Master drawings, vol. 46, n.3, 2008, 309.

[5] The auxiliary cartoon was a sheet of paper through which the outline for a painting was punched, then worked up. It was an incredibly useful tool for Raphael in his developing key elements of face type and facial characterisation. See T. Henry, P. Joannides (eds.), Late Raphael, ( 12 Jun. – 16 Sept. 2012, Museo del Prado, Madrid ; 8 Oct. 2012 – 14 Jan. 2013, Musée du Louvre, Paris), Madrid, 2012, 172-177.

[6] M. Lavin,‘Colour Study in Barocci’s Drawing’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 98, n. 645, 1956, 436.

[7] J. Marciari and I.Verstegen, ‘‘Grande quanto l’opera’: Size and Scale in Barocci’s Drawings’, Master drawings, vol. 46, n.3, 2008,  291-321.