Art Spotlight: The Medieval Christ Child


'Saint Luke Painting the Virgin' by Maarten van Heemskerck Heritage Images / Heritage Images/Getty Images

In our podcast episode "Baby Jesus and the Homunculus" Joe and I discuss a number of different medieval and Renaissance paintings to chart the evolution of the Christ Child from a miniature adult human to a believable infant. Be sure to tune into that one -- embedded below -- for a full explanation of the "ugly Renaissance babies" that make us giggle. The answer traverses the worlds of theology, history and art.

We spend a lot of time discussing the above image by Maarten van Heemskerck -- mainly because of that utterly ripped baby Jesus. Let's take a closer look:

Detail from 'Saint Luke Painting the Virgin' by Maarten van Heemskerck
Heritage Images / Heritage Images/Getty Images

Here's another version of Saint Luke painting the Virgin by van Heemskerck. Note the anatomy text book at her feet and the anatomical and sculptural studies going on in the background.

St Luke painting the Virgin, 1550-1553, by Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574)
DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / De Agostini/Getty Images

But now onto some proper homunculoid versions of the Christ Child...

Madonna and Child, 1230. This image shows a strong Byzantine influence.
Print Collector / Print Collector/Getty Images
Detail from the 'Mary Triptych' by Hugo Van Der Goes (1440-1482) a Flemish painter. Dated 15th Century.
Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty Images

I actually grew up with a representation of this one in my home:

'Our Lady of Vladimir icon, painted in Constantinople (Byzantine Eastern Orthodox) of Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Russian, 12th century.
Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty Images
'The Madonna and Child,' 1323 to 1324, detail from the Altarpiece of St Dominic, by Simone Martini (1283-1344).
DEA / G. NIMATALLAH / De Agostini/Getty Images
Painting titled 'The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea' by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319) an Italian painter. Dated 13th Century.
Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty Images

Note the corpse-like appearance of this one, something with symbolic weight in Christian traditions:

'Presentation in the Temple,' 1454-1455, by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / De Agostini/Getty Images

The following is one of my favorites, as Fouquet manages to depict a Christ Child that is at once regal and biologically realistic. It's also beautifully surreal and weirdly erotic.

Painting titled 'The Madonna' by Jean Fouquet (1420-1481) a French painter. Dated 15th Century.
Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty Images

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.