il bambino

Shamus claims to like my “art” post, although as far as I can tell, the Scatterplot readers are not larded with art history majors. Neverthless, I’ll give you one more art history tidbit I have picked up wandering Italian churches and museuems. I have seen zillions of pictures of Madonna e il Bambino: Mary and baby Jesus. Mary, the Madonna, the Mother of God, has a very stylized portrayal in medieval art that carries into the early Renaissance. She is portrayed almost identically in picture after picture, regardless of artist. There’s a particular face, expression, inclination of the head, and garb that you see over and over. But not Baby Jesus. Every picture is different. What Jesus rarely looks like is an actual baby. Sometimes he looks like a short old man, sometimes a short eight year old, sometimes a baby whose head is too small. What hs is doing varies: he might be looking at Mary, suckling at the breast, looking at the breast, looking out at the viewer, looking off into space, holding the breast, pointing ot the breast, etc. His face is different in every picture. Nothing about him is stylized the way the Madonna is stylized. Absolutely nothing in the limited amout of interpretive material I’ve looked at (which is admittedly not a lot as I know little about art history) saying anything at all about this. So Scatterplotters — we already know you were not art history majors. But what about your friends and loved ones? Does anybody know anything about this?

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

6 thoughts on “il bambino”

  1. Alas, I have no idea. One of my great regrets in life is never taking an intro art history class in college. I have thought about sitting in on one. Has anyone ever sat in on an undergraduate class as a professor? Is it problematic? I’ve sat in on a colleague’s graduate class – which I quite enjoyed. But perhaps it’s different in an undergrad class…

    The one thing I do know about the Renaissance Madonna is that the artists struggled to convey the tension between her human motherhood and her divine character. They could have settled on a “form” in the process. Baby Jesus, perhaps, was more up for debate.


  2. I suppose that it is embarrassing now to admit that I actually was an art history major in undergrad. And, I forget a great deal of what I learned, so my generalizations should be taken with a large dose of salt. But, that said, here is my take…

    I think that the iconography of Mary with either Baby or Infant Jesus is much younger than the iconography of grown Jesus. I imagine that this has something to do with the cult of Mary which grew (if I remember correctly) during the Middle Ages. As artists moved from the Middle Ages, with highly proscribed iconographic compositions, the Renaissance started to capture a greater dimensionality of life (not least of which through the invention of perspective and realistic shading). As Renaissance artists started experimenting more with realism, I would guess that they simply adapted the iconography of Mary holding and looking at Jesus and made Mary more “realistic” looking (e.g. see here for a transitional piece between the flat icons of the Middle Ages and more dimensional depictions of the Renaissance). On the other hand, Jesus was almost always portrayed as looking out, as a small man still watching over the viewer. I think that the Renaissance painters were interested in depicting him as more realistically like a baby. But, that meant that they were basically forced to develop an iconography at a time when there was no set format for the portrayal of the baby Jesus.

    On the issue of Jesus looking like a “small man” I have two hypotheses. First, it is probably very difficult for painters to get an infant to model long enough to sit still to do the painting, so it could be that many of the eight-year-olds were stand-ins for baby’s because the artist had a reasonable chance at painting them. Second, often likenesses in paintings were taken from royal families (or the artists’ families or friends), so it could be that many of the depictions are based on these portraits.


  3. I sat in on an art history class while I was a fellow at UNC’s Institute for Art and Humanities. I did learn a bit, although frankly I found myself studying students more than the class — I watched what undergrads do in large (400-student) lectures and was horrified!

    My understanding from my wife, who actually has studied art history, is that the recognition that babies were not just little adults took a long time to emerge, but I don’t remember the historical particulars.


  4. I was going to give the same reference as Tina (nice work, Fetner!). I know a little bit about the “children as small adults.” The idea here was that development was not a phase of growth (baby to child to adolescent to adult) but instead a stage of training. So children were exactly like adults, they just hadn’t been integrated into society. They were viewed as “little beasts.” The stage model of development came quite later, and here children were seen as having “characters” to these different stages that could be objects of representation. However, this idea was not in full swing until a bit later – particularly post-enlightenment. So thinking back to art we see this most prominently in early American portraiture. The babies (and children) here look, simply, like shrunken adults. The idea collapsed in the Victorian era and particularly later as the period of education was extended.

    As far as I know, though, this phenomena was later than the Renaissance. Aries’ argument is particularly about childhood. He draws on art to make the argument – what we think of as children look like adults. But he accepts two moments of people’s lives: babies and adults. Adulthood begins at about 7, when children are apprenticed, put into fields, and first thought of as being able to seriously sin (this is also the moment of confirmation in Catholicism). But he doesn’t quite extend this observation to babies; they are a different thing. So my intuition would be that mike3550 is on to something: this has more to do with the person of Jesus than it does with the “babies as small adults” thing.


  5. That Baby Jesus isn’t portrayed as a real baby isn’t what surprised me. His being a short adult is not shocking, although it is amusing. It is the lack of stylization that is surprising, the variability in how he is portrayed, in contrast with the extreme stylization of Mary. The crucified Christ is also not as stylized as Mary is. And the live Jesus walking around preaching and doing miracles is not stylized at all. As I said, this is observation based on looking at the religious art in dozens of Italian churches and also walking past museum exhibits of a dozen or so Madonna and Child paintings in a row at various duomo museum exhibits, especially those in Firenze (Florence) and Siena. Mary is virtually identical in painting after painting by different artists. Jesus is not. It is the contrast that is interesting.


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