Creepy Medieval Babies

Have you ever looked at a painting from a few centuries ago and asked yourself, “Why is this baby so creepy looking?” Because I have, and I’m sure I’m not alone. They look like middle-aged men trapped in a baby’s body, and it seems to make no sense.

The creepy babies piqued my curiosity when I began to notice a pattern of them that spanned across different artists during the Medieval and Early Renaissance periods. They just seemed so out of place in otherwise beautiful and picturesque paintings. I asked my art history professor, and she gave me an answer I didn’t really consider, but wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear either: They just didn’t know paint average-looking babies. That is, there weren’t paintings made of just your average baby. Most paintings of the Medieval period that included a baby were of Mary and baby Jesus. The philosophers of the time believed Christ was born as a “perfectly formed and unchanged man”, meaning he was born as a man, a fully-grown man. The result? Man-babies. The adult picture of Jesus that we are all familiar with was represented in the baby. There is actually a term for this idea: homunculus, which is Latin for “little man”.

It wasn’t until the middle of the Renaissance that babies started to become cute instead of creepy. This shift came because average people now wanted to have their babies immortalized in paintings, and they didn’t want them to look like middle-aged men, they wanted them to look cute and chubby (which is understandable). A change that has carried through to present day. I don’t know about you, but I can really appreciate that change.

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