Madonna and Child
is an example of a medieval depiction of Maestà
(“Majesty”), or the recurring scene in which a seated Mary holds infant Jesus. In these scenes, Jesus frequently resembles a creepy old man. For example, the Jesus in ’s Maestà
(ca. 1280) has the wise demeanor and ornate clothing reminiscent of the philosophers in ’s School of Athens
(1509–11); the baby Jesus of the Madonna of Veveri
(ca. 1350) has a slight athletic build and a cold stare; ’s
interpretation of the theme from 1367 presents him with a receding hairline
; the infant Jesus of ’s Madonna of the Poppy
(ca. 1325) has deep-set eyes with dark circles and a very small head
, in his Madonna col Bambino n. 583
(1305–10), gives Jesus a chubby, childlike face with round, low-set eyes, but offsets that naturalism with a muscular and stocky physique.
There are two reasons why infant Jesus sports long limbs, abs, a tiny head, a sneer, a wrinkly neck, and even a receding hairline in medieval art. The first is that medieval society did not really think of childhood as a distinct period of life. “Medieval art until about the twelfth century did not know childhood or did not attempt to portray it,” writes Philippe Ariès in his book Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, which is a foundational work in the study of the perception of childhood in history. Children, in fact, were perceived and portrayed as miniature adults because neither society nor artists had any conception of childhood as we now understand it. As a consequence, portraying infant Jesus as a child would not have made sense during the medieval period of art.
The second reason that infant Jesus looks the way he does in medieval art is more symbolic. It’s tied to the idea of the homunculus, literally “little man.” The homunculus argument posited that an infant was born as a fully formed, miniature adult. This concept is rooted in alchemy, where Zosimos—an alchemist and a mystic who was active between the 3rd and 4th centuries—claimed to have encountered a priest who changed into “the opposite of himself, into a mutilated anthroparion” (“anthroparion” being the Greek equivalent of “homunculus”). The pursuit of the homunculus would crop up in many later alchemy texts.