Why Do Babies in Medieval Paintings Look So Scary?

Medieval artists painted freaky infants on purpose.
Yikes. / The Jules Bache Collection, 1949, Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

Medieval artists are not known for their life-like accuracy. They doodled killer bunnies in the margins of their manuscripts and painted lions as goofy, grimacing felines. But if you’ve ever found yourself chuckling at the angry man-heads on human babies in medieval art, the joke is actually on you: These painters wanted the babies to look like Boomers.

Vox spoke to Matthew Averett, an art history professor at Creighton University, to find out why this trend toward intentionally old-looking babies abounded during the Middle Ages—and what caused the shift during the Renaissance toward the cherubic faces we recognize as babies.

‘Madonna and Child Enthroned,’ credited to the workshop of Paolo Veneziano, c. 1350
Baby Jesus with a six-pack. / Bequest of Edward Fowles, 1971, Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

The reasoning, like all things artistic in the Middle Ages, has to do with Jesus. Back then, the church commissioned most of the portraits of babies and children. And they didn’t want just any old baby—they wanted the baby Jesus (or other biblical kids). Medieval artists subscribed to the concept of homunculus, which literally means “little man,” or the belief that Jesus was born “perfectly formed and unchanged,” Averett said. Therefore, paintings of Jesus showed him with adult features and physiques, even when the purported child is sitting in his mother’s lap, playing with her robes, or breastfeeding.

This homuncular, adult-looking baby Jesus became the standard for all children, an exemplar that stuck in the Middle Ages because artists at the time had, according to Averett, a “lack of interest in naturalism, and they veered more toward expressionistic conventions.”

The ugly baby trend faded during the Renaissance, when artists rediscovered realism and applied scientific precision to their figurative works. Non-religious art also flourished at the time as the rising middle and upper classes could afford portraits of their family members. The wealthy patrons wanted representations of their darling children that reflected well on the parents, with little boys and girls who were cute—not Benjamin Button-esque. Depictions of babies shifted away from the hyper-stylized homuncular and never looked back.

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A version of this story was published in 2019; it has been updated for 2024.

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