Tura was the great painter of fifteenth-century Ferrara; in his lifetime, his stature was equal to that of Mantegna in Mantua and Botticelli in Florence. His reputation has suffered considerably because almost all of his significant works were damaged or destroyed after his death in 1495. Much of what survives is fragmentary, such as this tondo that Gardner acquired in 1901. The work exhibits Tura’s wiry outlines and hard, metallic drapery.
The Gardner Museum’s panel is generally thought to have come from a large polyptych commissioned by the Roverella family, made in the 1470s for the church of San Giorgio in Ferrara, and dismembered following the bombardment of the church in 1709. Other surviving portions include two round panels of similar format in the Fogg Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, along with a fragment showing the head of Saint George (Museum of Fine Arts, San Diego). The largest portions include the central panel showing the Virgin and Child enthroned with angels (National Gallery, London), a side panel with Cardinal Bartolomeo Roverella being presented by his patron saints (Colonna Collection, Rome), and a crowning lunette depicting the lamentation over the dead Christ (Louvre, Paris).
This reconstruction can be supported not only from the fact that the three tondi are of the correct dimensions to serve as the central parts of a predella for the altarpiece, but also because of thematic and iconographic links with the panels known to have come from the altarpiece. The Circumcision was normally interpreted (especially by the preachers of the Papal Curia, to which the Roverella were strongly attached) as a termination and fulfillment of the Law of Moses. Like the sleep of Christ which is depicted in the London panel, the Circumcision was also regarded as a prefiguration of the Passion; the analogy is made explicit in the altarpiece in the harrowing depiction of the dead Christ in the lunette which crowned the altarpiece. We can envision that on a central axis in the altarpiece were aligned the dead Christ of the Pietà, the sleeping Christ in the lap of the Virgin, and Christ’s first shedding of blood.
In the Gardner tondo, Christ does not willingly submit to circumcision but recoils from it, turning away also from the image of Moses. So too in the London panel, the face of the sleeping child covers up and renders illegible the Second Commandment of Moses, which in its Hebrew form makes an explicit prohibition against the worshiping of God through images. The 1470s, when the altarpiece was created, was a time of considerable strife between Jewish and Christian communities across Northern Italy, including Ferrara, culminating in the notorious blood-libel of Trent in 1475 when Jews were massacred following the alleged ritual murder of a Christian child. Any suggestion of Christian triumph over Judaism in these years would have fanned the flames of a cultural tension, not only between Jews and Christians in general but between Italian princes and their Christian subjects who were encouraged by mendicant preaching to resent the protection of the Jews.
Source: Stephen J. Campbell, "The Circumcision," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003):54-55.