Why Babies in Medieval Paintings Look Like Middle-Aged Men: An Investigative Video

How much spe­cial treat­ment should we give chil­dren, and how much should we regard them as small adults? The answer to that ques­tion varies not just between but with­in time peri­ods and soci­eties. The atti­tude in the 21st-cen­tu­ry west can, at times, seem to have erred toward a patron­iz­ing over­pro­tec­tive­ness, but his­to­ry has shown that if the social pen­du­lum swings one way, it’ll prob­a­bly swing the oth­er in due time. We cer­tain­ly find our­selves far from the view of chil­dren tak­en in medieval Europe, of which we catch a glimpse when­ev­er we behold the babies in its paint­ings — babies that invari­ably, accord­ing to a Vox piece by Phil Edwards, “look like ugly old men.”

“Medieval por­traits of chil­dren were usu­al­ly com­mis­sioned by church­es,” writes Edwards, “and that made the range of sub­jects lim­it­ed to Jesus and a few oth­er bib­li­cal babies. Medieval con­cepts of Jesus were deeply influ­enced by the homuncu­lus, which lit­er­al­ly means lit­tle man.” It also goes along with a strange­ness preva­lent in medieval art which, accord­ing to Creighton Uni­ver­si­ty art his­to­ri­an Matthew Averett, “stems from a lack of inter­est in nat­u­ral­ism” and a reliance on “expres­sion­is­tic con­ven­tions.” These con­di­tions changed, as did much else, with the Renais­sance: “a trans­for­ma­tion of the idea of chil­dren was under­way: from tiny adults to unique­ly inno­cent crea­tures” with the cute­ness to match.

You can wit­ness a ver­i­ta­ble parade of odd­ly man­like medieval babies in the short video at the top of the post. “After the Renais­sance, cherubs did­n’t seem out of place, and nei­ther did cuter pic­tures of baby Jesus,” says Edwards, nar­rat­ing. “It’s kind of stayed that way since. We want babies who look like they need their cheeks pinched, not their prostates checked. We want them chub­by and cute, and we want babies that fit our ideals” — ideals that have led from pudgy angels to the Ger­ber Baby to the col­lect­ed work of Anne Ged­des. We prob­a­bly need not fear an aes­thet­ic return to the mid­dle-aged, homuncu­lar babies of yore, but their frowny expres­sions have cer­tain­ly made a come­back in real life: just look at any 21st-cen­tu­ry infant immersed in an iPad.

via Vox

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hierony­mus Bosch’s Medieval Paint­ing, “The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights,” Comes to Life in a Gigan­tic, Mod­ern Ani­ma­tion

The Aberdeen Bes­tiary, One of the Great Medieval Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts, Now Dig­i­tized in High Res­o­lu­tion & Made Avail­able Online

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Bizarre Car­i­ca­tures & Mon­ster Draw­ings

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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