Thursday, 15 August 2013

Medieval babies

This is 'The virgin with the child' by Mariotto di Nardo, in the Christ Church picture gallery

Pregnancy has sparked in me a newfound interest in catholic art! Well ok, in representations of the Madonna and child more exclusively. Its suddenly rather gratifying to reflect on the extent to which western civilisation has deified the mother-baby relationship, especially in southern europe.
But I also enjoy just looking at the different nuances of the way that Mary gazes at her babe, or cradles him. Done well, there is something so very intimate but at the same time universal about that bond. Plus I'm a sentimental git these days.
Less soppily, I'm really curious about why many  works from this period depict the baby Jesus, and infants in general I think, as being miniature adults. They're all out of proportion, chubby cheeks and podgy limbs skipped in favour of long legs and grown up faces, only smaller. They look so odd - so wrong. Was it a stylistic fad? Maybe they avoided having babies look like real babies in case they drew the attention of evil spirits? Or maybe it was so normal for babies to be malnourished that this is what they typically looked like? It got me thinking about Piaget's (now outdated) contention that babies are, developmentally speaking, just like very limited versions of adults. Perhaps the artists were reflecting this attitude - portraying babies and children as adults-in-waiting, like the homunculus of a future being. Maybe they just weren't very good at drawing babies back then : o

Update: My friend and colleague Rachael Brown says "I have always wondered the same thing and was told by a tour guide once that the reason that Jesus is depicted in these medieval pictures as half adult is because he is in part God. This website (though it looks a bit dodgy so not sure about it) has more in a similar vein plus some more paintings "

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