In medieval art, depictions of babies are far from the cherubic, innocent infants we imagine today. Instead, they appear as miniature adults, complete with mature features that can be quite unsettling. This peculiar artistic choice can be attributed to several factors. First and foremost, the influence of Christian theology played a significant role. The New Testament doesn’t describe the appearance of the baby Jesus, but medieval church doctrine held that Christ was a fully formed man at birth. This belief, though perplexing, shaped the way artists portrayed the infant Jesus and, subsequently, other babies in their art. Moreover, the concept of the ” homunculus,” a fully formed human believed to exist before conception, contributed to this artistic trend. The homunculus theory, rooted in alchemy and folklore, influenced not only art but also theology and science during the medieval era.
Additionally, societal views on children in medieval times differed drastically from contemporary perspectives. Children were often regarded as small, imperfect adults who needed moral guidance and discipline. This outlook further fueled the portrayal of babies as miniature grown-ups. Lastly, commissioned artwork during this period was largely controlled by the church, and artists tailored their styles to cater to the church’s preferences. Consequently, the portrayal of babies as adult-like figures became the norm. Thankfully, as history progressed into the Renaissance, a shift occurred in opinions, giving us less terrifying depictions of babies.
Top image: Fresco depicting the Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus. Source: Giorgio G / Adobe Stock.