Just Why Were Renaissance Babies so Ugly? by @LeArtCorner

(cross-posted from Le Art Corner)

originally published 22.10.2013

Just Why Were Renaissance Babies so Ugly?

This excellent Tumblr is responsible for cementing the Ugly Renaissance Baby into popular imagination.

Before I read Ugly Renaissance Babies,  I had noticed that these babies looked just a bit fucking weird. But as everyone oohed and ahhed at Renaissance paintings so much, I felt that pointing out their disturbing oddness would render me some kind of philistine. Now that Ugly Renaissance Babies are out of the closet, let’s have a look at how they got so darn ugly.

St Nicholas Refusing his Mother's Milk

1. Context

Renaissance paintings weren’t there to look pretty on the living room wall. They were commissioned to live in high up in churches, glittering and  golden and striking awe and fear into the hearts of the lowly congregation who shuffled in metres below, raising their eyes to the almighty spectacle. Candlelight enhanced the effect, meaning that often all that was visible were the gold-encased silhouettes of the holy orders. Mary and Jesus would have been right at the top, of  course. So for a start, Renaissance painters had to go for extreme features that would stand out from a distance.

2. Symbolism

Renaissance babies weren’t always supposed to be realistic. Renaissance art is all about religious symbolism. The figures are meant to be awe-inspiring and other-worldly – the church was all about keeping society under control, and using art to cement the greatness of god, and the church, in people’s minds.

Wealthy patrons – i.e. the church, commissioned artists trusting that they would use a certain visual language; a symbolism that the common, illiterate churchgoer would be familiar with. Thus, Jesus was often depicted as a “little adult” to symbolise his precocious wisdom.

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 18.17.52

More grown-up J-Crizzle. Madonna and Child. Duccio di Buoninsegna 1290–1300; Tempera and gold on wood

Albrecht Durer, Weeping Angel Boy, 1591

3. Realism

This one’s going to be controversial, but I’d argue that a good number of the Renaissance Babies aren’t especially misshapen, they’re just harshly true-to-life. Perhaps we expect people, including babies, in paintings to look a bit “enhanced.” Well the Renaissance artists obviously didn’t. I think they were just painting what they saw, without the need or inclination to apply any kind of “cute baby filter”.

4. WTF?

I’m not sure what’s going on here. Can anyone enlighten me?

1.Why is the boob so high up?


 2. Why does the baby have boobs?

Unknown Dutch Painter, 15th century, Virgin with Angels

3. Why?

Nature forging a baby.” Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, c.1490-c.1500.


Le Art Corner: I blog about fine art. Twitter: @LeArtCorner & Facebook

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