Infants in medieval art all have one thing in common: They don't look like babies. Instead, they resemble miniature versions of middle-aged men, sometimes complete with receding hairlines and ripped muscles. Depictions of weird, prematurely aged babies appeared throughout the medieval era and into the Renaissance when the trend (thankfully) started to fade away. The Renaissance, in particular, may have spawned some of the best paintings of all time, but what's up with all those ugly babies in old paintings?
Artists had their reasons for painting babies in such a strange manner. Art is full of symbolism - and these creepy babies are no exception. Infants who look like they want to sell you insurance may seem weird to the modern viewer, but the practice was influenced by Christian theology, medieval medical understanding, and antiquated theories on childhood.
When portraying Jesus Christ, the most frequently depicted baby in medieval art, painters took their cues from prevailing Christian beliefs. At the time, the church believed Christ was essentially a perfectly formed and unchanging man during his entire life.
It meant the Christ child needed to appear in adult form because he was not supposed to change with age. The church did not want Christ represented as a baby; instead, they preferred a miniature man.
During the medieval era, privately commissioned portraits were still rare. Most paintings of children were commissioned by the Christian church, which meant the subjects were usually limited to a few biblical babies, including the infant Jesus.
Since Jesus was far and away the most commonly painted baby, other infants in medieval art naturally began to share the Christ child's middle-aged characteristics.
Medieval artists' proclivity for painting babies with adult features came in part from the theory of the homunculus, which means "little man." According to the belief, a homunculus is a fully formed human thought to exist before conception. The idea first took hold when the alchemist Paracelsus used the term in his instructions for creating a baby without fertilization or gestation.
The homunculus theory spread into other disciplines including theology, reproductive science, and art.
While Renaissance artists focused on realism, medieval artists were more interested in expressionism. Art history professor Matthew Averett told Vox, "The strangeness that we see in medieval art stems from a lack of interest in naturalism, and they veered more toward expressionistic conventions."
Medieval artists didn't care if the infants in their work resembled real babies. Artists of the era were tied to convention, and painting styles were mostly uniform. In many cases, these conventions were based on religious symbolism rather than real life. The church had certain standards for a representation of the Christ child, and artists were likely to adhere to artistic tradition.