Why babies in medieval paintings look ugly

Hi and welcome back to Exploring Art, I am Alessandro. Delicate topic today, but someone has to talk about it. Let’s start saying that all the infants are cute… that’s probably not true. But what we can see in Medieval paintings is almost outrageous: they look like Benjamin Button and it seems impossible to get to something like the Sistine Madonna below just in a few decades.

Sistine Madonna, Raffaello
Sistine Madonna, Raffaello

Why were babies “ugly”

But, of course, there are reasons for that.

First of all, you are probably aware of this, but Jesus had a completely different creation path compared to all of us and there was this idea that he was perfectly formed and unchanged. Medieval art was mostly religious so Jesus was the most frequently depicted baby alongside a couple of other biblical children. As a consequence, baby Jesus set the standards for how babies were depicted in general.

Another reason is the stylistic conventions of the time, which favored a more abstract and symbolic representation of the human form, rather than a naturalistic one. Artists would often use symbolism and allegory to convey religious or moral messages, and this could result in the depiction of infants and children in a manner that was not necessarily realistic or accurate.

Sant'Anna Metterza - Masaccio, Renaissance painting
Sant'Anna Metterza - Masaccio

Things started changing with Renaissance. The first reason because artists wanted to represent reality and how the things are actually seen in nature. That means that babies have to be depicted like babies and not smaller copies of adults. And that’s true not only for their chubby innocent faces, but also for how they act: they tend to be cheerful, curious and play.

Another reason. During Renaissance, art opened more to other subjects like personal portraits commissioned by rich families. And they wanted their babies to look like cute babies and not like tiny balding men. And, even if they looked like that, probably the artist was doing his best using filters.

Medieval icon - Madonna and Jesus
Medieval icon - Madonna and Jesus
Doni Tondo - Michelangelo with frame
Doni Tondo - Michelangelo

Conclusion

So, if you thought that Medieval artists were just bad at drawing that’s not true, not completely at least. It’s a joke, but that’s why it’s always important to contextualize art. During the Middle ages it was normal to consider that art as the maximum expression for the message that it was supposed to convey. Just when the social perspective changed, also art coherently changed.

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