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Art History Week



Have you ever wondered why every baby is creepy-looking in Medieval art?

  
That's one creepy baby you've got there, lady...

It's not just one artist in one place painting children as if they are going into their fourth decade of life fighting tooth and nail either. It's a pandemic of ugly-looking babies held by morose-looking mothers. Her face is almost always inexplicably sad. It is almost as if she's secretly asking herself "Where have I gone wrong?" in every single painting. Was it simply a case of people being bad at painting everywhere? Or was there a secret plague that deformed every single baby across the continent during those dark, dark ages? 


The Utility of Symbolism


It's hard to take our eyes away from the bizarre babies, but if one take a closer look at these paintings, one thing jumps out to the fore. These are all religious paintings. That's no ordinary creepy-looking baby and the woman holding him isn't just a sad-looking mother. These scenes are all depicting a certain sad mother holding her very special child: The Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. 

A culture's ideas and concept of what they see in front of them will dictate what they put down on paper. During the Medieval period, paintings weren't just pieces of art; they were a means to convey ideas and to tell stories. Most of the population during these days were illiterate, after all. They depend on the Church-issued iconography and symbolism to make sense of the world around them. Realism, therefore, was not an essential element in painting during the Medieval period. Expressionism was the artistic convention of the time for its usefulness. The artists themselves would have followed that convention both for their own sense of prestige but also for conformity. During the Dark Ages, only religious bodies have the power and money to commission artworks with very few exceptions. It was important for the artists to keep the status quo for good business (you really don't want to get on the bad side of the Church...) This meant that each one of these paintings are actually a kind of unified iconography that is meant to recount the Biblical stories and give the viewers a sense of awe and respect as expected by those who had commissioned them. This meant these man-babies were deliberately painted as "miniature old men" because they were meant to be respected as one would respect a fully-grown adult. A mean-looking, man-child adult. 


What you are seeing is an allegory... of something...

The Invisible Hand of Pythagoras 


The Greek philosopher Pythagoras didn't just come up with equations about triangles; he was the first person to come up with the idea that we will eventually call "Preformationism". It was a belief that was once very popular, and for a while it made a lot of sense - all things grow from miniature versions of themselves. When translated into people, this meant that that humans existed as miniature versions of themselves inside the father and they needed the mother's womb as an incubation chamber to grow up to a certain size in order to be born. Put in another way, we have all of the faculties and features that we would ever have before the moment we are born, wrinkles and all.

Fast forward to Medieval ages, the idea of preformationism was sanctioned by the Church and was deeply rooted in the popular conscience. This is also the reason why alchemists of this era were looking for ways to create a "homunculus", which is just a miniature version of a living, breathing human outside of the womb. (It also explains why the creation of such "artifacts" required blood and semen from the alchemist.) Indeed, when the human sperm was first put under the microscope by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in 1677, he described seeing miniature humans crouched inside the head. The understanding was so wide-spread and well-understood that it wasn't until late 1800's that preformationism started to fall out of favour. Therefore, preformationism was taken as the "natural order of things" during the Dark Ages.  And according to Professor Michael Averett, an art history professor at Creighton University who edited the anthology The Early Modern Child in Art and History: "There's the idea that Jesus was perfectly formed and unchanged. 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."

In the eyes of the artists, they were painting Jesus the way he ought to be seen. They thought they were painting the "real" version of him, so to speak. It's just too bad that their idea of baby Jesus is nothing short of horrifying.


Honestly... this is nightmare fuel...


Making Babies Beautiful Again


If there was a reason for these les enfants terrible, then how did we we come to painting babies that look like babies again? 

The Renaissance eventually saw a more peaceful period in Europe where there were fewer wars and more trade. The cities grew up around the merchant class and the Churches were not the only property holders - both in material goods and intellectual property. This meant there was more knowledge transfer and exchange between different places as well. As a consequence, we as a society have started seeing our world and our children in a different light. Now that people are no longer living under the shadow of the Black Death, children are seen as innocent again. With the rise of the middle class, art was commissioned by lords and ladies and even rich merchants. Gone were the days where the Church's sanction dictated what you can or cannot draw. There was a trend towards breaking away from the old way of doing things during the Renaissance. A renewed interest in classicism where human bodies were depicted in a more naturalistic way crept back into the public consciousness, too. With more artists willing to try their hands on depicting what they see around them instead of what they were told to see around them, our babies became beautiful in paintings again. 

"If we're thinking about children in a fundamentally different light, the painting will reflect the attitudes," Professor Averett says. "Style is chosen. 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."


    
Comparing to the way it was...
  
I am so glad we paint normal-looking babies now...



  • If "the paintings reflect our attitudes," have you noticed any recurrent themes in your own work?
  • Do you think your own work is more symbolic or naturalistic? Which do you prefer?
  • Have you encountered anything that's as inexplicable as these "ugly babies" that you have always wanted to ask about? Let us know! :)


When TheGalleryOfEve first asked "Does anyone know why babies look ugly in old paintings?" I answered the call. 
What I didn't realise was how many people are interested in finding out the answer to this exact question. 

I don't know about you, but art history has always been fascinating to me. And if you ask me, knowing why the babies all look like miniature balding men says a whole lot about us as a culture and a species. I hope this article finally explains the reason to you. And I hope you can go out and confidently tell other people "Yes! I know why the babies look atrocious!" :shakefist:
Add a Comment:
 
:iconmurhetta:
murhetta Featured By Owner 54 minutes ago
Middle ages middle aged babies :iconwhatdidijustplz: 
Reply
:icontinselfire:
Tinselfire Featured By Owner 4 days ago
  • Have you encountered anything that's as inexplicable as these "ugly babies" that you have always wanted to ask about? Let us know! :) (Smile)
Sort of.

Work a lot with historical anthros, and the middle ages with the saturation of Christian imagery presents one touchy issue.
In a world where everybody is a furry animal, what species would Jesus be?
Reply
:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
That's a great question! 

I think part of anthros is about how people perceive the animals - as in the "lore and legend" attached to the animals that form the first "gut feeling" we have towards them. Take, for example, doves give off a very different gut feeling than vultures. Lions also give a very different set of emotions than lambs. In light of this presumption (and mind, this is just my best educated guess), I would say that the animal that symbolizes Jesus would most likely be sheep. After all, even St. John  the Apostle called him "The Lamb of God" in the gospels. The other one possibility would mostly likely to be a goat - and this goes back to the "scapegoat" tradition where one goat is left to carry the sins of the people afield (Barnabas) and one is sacrificed for the good of the community (Jesus). 

That's just my take. I would be interested in hearing yours. :)
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:iconedwardsotherside:
EdwardsOtherSide Featured By Owner 5 days ago  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Thank you for the art history! It certainly expanded on what I had been aware of.

But...
Come on, doc!  You've seen a baby less than a day old.  The are only beautiful to their families. 
;) (Wink) 
Reply
:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
Sure, I have. I have seen babies as they come out. 
Heck, I have seen so many of them they don't look ugly to me anymore. ^^; But these kids... that's another story. Miniature balding-men-with-a-scowl is still kinda ugly-creepy to me! 

Thank you for your kind words. I am glad to be able to expand on what you already know! :thanks:
Reply
:iconcraftsbyblue:
craftsbyblue Featured By Owner 5 days ago  Hobbyist Artisan Crafter
Thank you so much for writing this! You answered a pressing question perfectly, along with any follow up questions I had (like how we got out of the adult baby phase) :thanks:

Great discussion questions as well :nod:
For recurrent themes in my art, I feel like my art reflects a desire for constant self-improvement and experimentation xD. I think I’m fine with both for jewelry but prefer naturalistic in most other mediums :nod:
Reply
:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
You are more than welcome! I am glad to be able to answer your question(s) for you! :love:

Thanks for the answer, too! :thanks: 
I can see your drive for self-improvement and that certainly shows from your work. As for the preference for naturalistic work... I can personally get behind that idea. I think Nature is the greatest muse we can get as artists. And it's a noble cause to try to get naturalistic. :nod:
Reply
:iconcraftsbyblue:
craftsbyblue Featured By Owner 2 days ago  Hobbyist Artisan Crafter
:hug: :hug:

You are welcome :)!
I'm really glad you see that in my works :thanks:
I agree, nature is the greatest muse, and it's nice to show appreciation for nature through art :nod:
Reply
:iconkirawra:
KiRAWRa Featured By Owner 5 days ago
Finally a long-sought answer to this hilarious question! Thank you so much for providing this insight!
Reply
:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
You are more than welcome! :D
You know... I had no idea how many people had the same question floating in their heads before I wrote this article! 
Reply
:iconaquavarin:
AquaVarin Featured By Owner 5 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
Is it the same deal with weird-looking lions as well (Saint Jerome and the lion)? or is it just the lack of photo reference so painters had to paint based on written description?
Reply
:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
Most people have never seen a lion in the past - so all they had to go with were descriptions. This is most likely why people think "Unicorn" is actually a rhinoceros ( think of it: four-legs, horse-like, got a horn on the top of its head...) and the Leviathan is actually just a hippo (Lives in water, has a gaping maw and giant teeth...). It's actually not very far-fetched. The word "Hippopotamus" means "river horse" in Greek. And it's really easy for someone who has never seen a hippo before to think of a "river-horse" being something completely different from a hippo. 

On the other hand, symbolic iconography likes to anthropomorphosize anything that might be remotely sentient. This means a lot of the lions would be drawn with a man's face because in the legend, the lion was obviously sentient enough to look for help and eventually befriended St. Jerome. 

I hope this helps to answer your question! 
Reply
:iconthystyn:
Thystyn Featured By Owner 5 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
I've also wondered why the babies were so goddamn ugly, and now I have an answer... of sorts.  So glad that times have changed.  Thanks for the article.
Reply
:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
Yeah, I am so very glad that things have changed, too! ^^; 

I am glad that I can give you some kind of an answer (I know, it's long-winded and hard to put into a nutshell... ^^;). I hope it's still useful, though! 
Reply
:iconshesvii:
Shesvii Featured By Owner 5 days ago  Professional Traditional Artist
Morose looking mothers :iconlmfao-plz:
Very good article!! :clap: 
I enjoyed it a lot. I like the humour you put in it.
Reply
:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
I am so very glad that you liked the article! :XD:
And hey, you gotta make this fun. There's no other way to look at horrifying-looking babies. ;)
Reply
:icondanubium:
Danubium Featured By Owner 5 days ago
For every reference to "the Dark Ages", a historian goes berserk and shoots up a school.

Please, think of children.
Reply
:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
As a medical historian, I haven't found any compulsion to go berserk yet. You must be thinking of some other historians with a much shorter temper fuse. 

Be that as it may, point taken. Unfortunately "Middle Ages" do not fit in the allowed length of the title. Therefore the title was and will stay as "Dark Ages" out of necessity. In the meantime, let's pray for the children.
Reply
:icondanubium:
Danubium Featured By Owner 3 days ago
Unless I'm mistaken, "of Medieval art" would have fit the character limit, and the alleged necessity also carries over to the body of the text, making it clear where you stand regarding this heresy.
Thoughts and prayers aren't enough, we need historical term control!
Reply
:iconqueen-kitty:
Queen-Kitty Featured By Owner 6 days ago   Photographer
This article is absolutely amazing, thank you for picking such an entertaining but also enlightening topic!
Reply
:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
I am so glad to hear that you liked it! :thanks: 
You should thank TheGalleryOfEve  for asking the question in the first place! :)
Reply
:iconruddud:
RudDud Featured By Owner 6 days ago  Hobbyist Digital Artist
And here I was thinking it was just cause they used adult models for their baby paintings.
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:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
You know... you're not all that far off. 
Michelangelo used all male models, even when he was painting females. And since most of his male models were body-builders and athletes, Michelangelo's women look... well, pretty atrocious, too. ^^;
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:iconruddud:
RudDud Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Yeah wasn't that for something like not wanting women to be representing godlike figures? I know Shakespearean plays had the same deal going on. Old stuff was weird.
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:icondracoan:
Dracoan Featured By Owner 5 days ago  Hobbyist Writer
Same here.
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:iconhankhounddog:
hankhounddog Featured By Owner 6 days ago
Great story! Very interesting.
Reply
:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
Glad to hear that you liked it! :thanks:
Reply
:iconflabbergastingdragon:
flabbergastingdragon Featured By Owner 6 days ago  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I have seen babies that look this hideous. An interesting article nonetheless.
Reply
:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
Yeah, you're right. Babies can look pretty darn hideous. But I get to say that they sure as heck don't look like they are fighting male-pattern baldness. (Most of them are just bald, period.) And they sure don't do these creepy hand-signs, either... ;) 

Thanks very much for your comment! I really appreciate it!
Reply
:iconspaghettibar:
SpaghettiBar Featured By Owner 5 days ago
The brush was Hideous?
Reply
:iconchiwwydawg:
ChiwwyDawg Featured By Owner 6 days ago  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Very interesting! This was something I noticed during my art history and general history classes, and I had a suspicion it had something to do with the beliefs and scientific ways of thinking at the time. It all makes total sense now!
Reply
:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
I am so very glad to hear that you have the answer to your nagging questions now! :D
See? The world makes sense... you just gotta find the reason. :nod:
Reply
:iconlindartz:
LindArtz Featured By Owner 6 days ago  Hobbyist Digital Artist
:laughing:  Yes, I did "wonder" myself a few times.


I "wonder", if this is where the idea for this movie was born...  (the guy is not a midget, it's all special effects)

www.imdb.com/title/tt0430304/v…
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:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
You did? Well, now the answer is here! :XD: 

I don't think this is where the idea for the movie came out. Much earlier than this, there were several "adult-baby" characters before this movie. The earliest was in Warner Brother's "Merrie Melodies" animated short and the story line in that short was very similar to this movie. I think they might have ripped Bugs Bunny off! ^^;
Reply
:iconlindartz:
LindArtz Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist Digital Artist
You're probably right! :)!  And someone's always getting ripped off, eh? :laughing:   But thank heaven "babies" have gone back to the norm, in art. :psychotic: ^^
Reply
:iconmep4photography:
MEP4Photography Featured By Owner 6 days ago  Hobbyist Photographer
👏👏👏 Very informative and well written. Amazing ...I never realized.
Reply
:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
I am glad to be able to finally answer this question (that you didn't know you had) for you! ;) 
Now you can go proudly tell others why the babies looked so darned ugly! 
Reply
:icongeorgexvii:
GeorgeXVII Featured By Owner 6 days ago  Professional Traditional Artist
👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽 Great article SinistrosePhosphate 
Reply
:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
Thank you so very much for your kind words! :thanks:
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:icontanyasimpson:
TanyaSimpson Featured By Owner 6 days ago
I've been looking forward to this article since I read that it was going to be a thing. It did not disappoint!
Reply
:iconsinistrosephosphate:
SinistrosePhosphate Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
I am so very glad that you liked it! :love: 
And I am so very glad to hear that I haven't disappointed you! :hug:
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