Ugly Renaissance Babies

Grumpy Jesus

“Ugly Renaissance Babies”, a blog on the website Tumblr, showcases several works by Hans Baldung Grien – and went viral a few years ago.

Image of Hans Baldung Grien: Nativity, 1539

The Nativity to the left, a work that Baldung painted in 1539 and belongs to the collection of the Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, is a perfect example of “ugly Renaissance babies”: the Child’s pale and grumpy face doesn’t express his bad mood, but rather illustrates the talent of the painter who renders Christ’s birth and death on a single picture.

Image of the painting Hans Baldung Grien: Man of Sorrows with the Virgin Mary and Angels, 1513.

The baby’s deathly pallor, the suffering expressed by the down-turned corners of his mouth, and the white cloth draped around his hips are characteristic of the traditional iconography called “Pietà with Angels”.

Despite its popularity as a trending meme, Baldung’s “ugly Renaissance baby” doesn’t show a deficit of creative talent, but rather highlights the artist’s genius in rendering significant episodes in Christ’s life with subtlety.

Image of Hans Baldung Grien: The Nativity, ca. 1525-1530, lent by Städel Museum Frankfurt.

Baldung depicted Christ’s birth and death in several works, some of them figuring the Crucified with angels lamenting and clasping His wounded corpse in their arms.

The Nativity to the left anticipates the crucifixion and expresses the belief that Christ is the “light of the world”: the Child’s pallor illuminates the dark stable, blinding even the angels and Joseph, while only the Virgin Mary can look directly at her Son.

From Man Child to Baby Face

Many of the “ugly Renaissance babies” on the Tumblr website showcase medieval depictions of the Child. The church was the biggest patron for artworks in those days, which explains the abundance of paintings figuring episodes of the Bible in general and scenes with Jesus as the main protagonist in particular.

Tumblr users react to images of the Baby Jesus as “ugly” not merely because of bizarre poses and facial expressions, but rather because such pictures, often portraying the Child as an old man in miniature, contradict how we think a baby should look today.

Heavenly, Childlike, Childish?

As Jesus is the son of God made man, should artists depict him as an ordinary baby or as a perfect, all-knowing divinity from the moment of his birth?

In the Middle Ages, as the church was the main patron for artworks, the tradition was to concentrate on heavenly portrayal. This conventional approach evolved in the Renaissance period when wealthy citizens became art patrons as well and required more realistic images of their children on family portraits. At the same time, the artists took a growing interest in faithfully applying the rule of proportion to paint the human body, so that even images of Baby Jesus became more realistic.

Image of Hans Baldung Grien: Virgin with the Child and Parrots, 1533, lent by Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nuremberg.

The iconography called “Maria lactans” also reflects the dilemma about representing the divinity of Baby Jesus, as such pictures portray the Virgin Mary breastfeeding her Son, which brings his humanity to the fore. Moreover, paintings of this kind were probably selected as examples of “ugly babies” because their protagonists directly look at us.

Image of Hans Baldung Grien: Virgin with Child and Saint Anne, around 1510/15, lent by Kunstmuseum Basel.

Baldung’s putti are another example of the new conventional approach, as such angels with chubby cheeks and puppy fat resemble real babies on his paintings. Although some of them even play musical instruments, which is an adult pastime, they still show a childish character, as evidenced by the putti on the painting to the left, who are playful and throw apples to each other.

Baldung deliberately portrayed the funny side to such cherubs to generate a contrast on works dealing with serious subjects.