Have you ever wondered why babies in medieval paintings look like ugly old men? The reasons are manifold. 

Firstly, it wasn’t accidental. While there were indeed advances in artistic methods of depicting the human face and body during the Renaissance, in the Medieval period painters were following specific instructions. 

Picture this: You’re in Florence, and the year is 1250. The church is the only institution or person rich enough to afford to commission paintings. And philosophers at the time were interested in the idea of the homunculus – or ‘little man.’ They believed that Jesus was born ‘perfectly formed and unchanged,’ and it is for that reason that the adult Jesus is represented in the baby Jesus in depictions of the Virgin and child. 

Now consider Florence two hundred years later. The Renaissance has begun, and the people are getting richer. They don’t want paintings of their own babies to look like homunculi; and so begins the gradual shift towards the angelic paintings of babies we see now, such as cherubs on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. 

Additionally, Renaissance thinkers were interested in the Classics, specifically Greco-Roman ideas concerning the perfect form in art. This also influenced the move away from depictions of Jesus that weren’t aesthetically pleasing. 

Originally created and published by Vox

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