Why are the babies in medieval art so ugly?
To find the answer, I spoke to Matthew Averett, an art history professor at Creighton University who edited the anthology The Early Modern Child in Art and History. But really, just how ugly are these babies?
Ugly might be too weak a word for medieval babies
These babies look like horrifying tiny men with high cholesterol and strong opinions about housing association rules.
They're babies like this one from 1350:
Or this one from 1333:
These scary man-babies make one wonder how we went from ugly medieval depictions to the recognizably cherubic babies of the Renaissance and today. You can use the slider below to see just how much our idea of a "baby face" has changed:
So why were there so many ugly babies? The reasons turned out to say a lot about art, medieval culture, and even the way we think of children today.
Were medieval artists just bad at drawing?
These ugly babies were very intentional. Drawing a line between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is a useful tool when considering ugly babies and significantly more lovable ones. The two eras tend to show a difference in values.
"If we're thinking about children in a fundamentally different light, the painting will reflect the attitudes," Averett says.
"Style is chosen," he continues. "We might look at medieval art and go, 'These people don't look right.' But if your goal is to look like Picasso and you make a realistic painting, they'd say you didn't do it right, either." Though there were artistic innovations that came with the Renaissance, they aren't the reason babies became better-looking.
(Ugly baby note: Generally, people believe the Renaissance began in Florence, Italy, in the 14th century and rippled outward from there. However, like any intellectual movement, that characterization is simultaneously overly broad and narrow: It's too broad in that it gives the impression that Renaissance values were everywhere, instantly, and it's too narrow in that it limits a mass movement to a single pocket of innovation. There were holes in the Renaissance — you might easily see an ugly baby in 1521, if the artist were committed to the style.)
We can break down the following two reasons for the man-babies of medieval art:
- Most of those medieval babies were depictions of Jesus. The concept of the homuncular Jesus affected how children were portrayed.
Medieval portraits of children were usually commissioned by churches. 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. "There's the idea that Jesus was perfectly formed and unchanged," Averett says, "and if you combine that with Byzantine painting, it became a standard way to depict Jesus. In some of these images, it looks like he had male pattern baldness."
That homuncular, adult-looking Jesus became a convention for painting all children. Over time, it simply became the right way that people thought that they should paint babies.
- Medieval artists were less interested in realism
This unrealistic depiction of Jesus reflects a broader approach to medieval art: They were less interested in realism or idealized forms than Renaissance artists were.
"The strangeness that we see in medieval art stems from a lack of interest in naturalism, and they veered more toward expressionistic conventions," Averett says.
In turn, this made most of the people in medieval art look similar. "The idea of artistic freedom to depict these people however you want would have been new. There were artistic conventions."
That style of painting kept babies looking like out-of-shape soccer dads, at least until the Renaissance happened.
How the Renaissance made babies beautiful again
So what changed to make babies cute again?
- Non-religious art flourished — and people didn't want their own babies looking like creepy men
In the Middle Ages, "we see less art of the middle class or even the common people," Averett says.
Once the Renaissance happened, that began to change as Florence's middle class flourished, and people were able to afford portraits of their own children. As portraiture expanded, people wanted their babies to look like cute babies instead of ugly adult homunculi. That changed the norms for a lot of art, including, eventually, portrayals of Jesus.
- Renaissance idealism changed art
"In the Renaissance," Averett says, "there's this new interest in observing nature and depicting things as they're actually seen" rather than the expressionist attitudes of earlier art. That included more realistic babies — and beautiful cherubs that picked the best features drawn from real people.
- Children became viewed as innocents
Averett cautions against reading too much into the changing role of children in the Renaissance world — parents in the Middle Ages didn't love their kids any differently than Renaissance parents did. But during the Renaissance, a transformation of the idea of children was underway: from tiny adults to uniquely innocent creatures.
"We later have this idea of children being innocent," Averett notes. "If children are born without sin, they can't know things."
As adult attitudes toward children changed, so did adult portrayals of kids. Ugly babies (or beautiful ones) are a reflection of how a society thinks about their kids, about art, and about their goals as parents.
Why we still want our babies to be beautiful
With all those factors combined, babies became the cheek-pinchable figures we know today. And that's easy for modern viewers like us to understand, since we still have some post-Renaissance ideals about kids.
That's why, to our eyes, it's a good thing baby pictures changed. Because this is a face only a mother could love: