Anyone who spends any time mooching around art galleries cannot fail to be struck by the quite remarkable ugliness of many infant Jesuses. I’m not talking about the extreme stylisation – derived from the Byzantine tradition – of Virgin and Child in late medieval paintings, but of the more realistic renderings of the Renaissance and beyond, where serene, beautiful and recognisable adult humans are adoring a distorted grotesque. It makes one wonder if any sixteenth-century Italian artist ever saw an unswaddled baby.
I know I’m not alone in this – Donna Leon has her detective protagonist and his wife in an ongoing competition to find the Ugliest Bambino in Venice – and it is indeed an agreeable pastime. It depends partly, of course, on the age of the baby or child being depicted. A Nativity presumes new-born to 12 days old (for the Adoration of the Magi), 40 days for the Presentation in the Temple, during the Flight into Egypt a few weeks … ? But there are many of indeterminate age – playing with the infant St John or being worshipped by cohorts of saints and/or donors – where the basic rules of human anatomy and proportion seem to be wilfully discarded.
I’ve been idly photographing these unfortunate children for some time, but on our recent jaunt to Padua I came across such a flock (bevy, concatenation, murmuration, nursery?) that I thought I’d mount a small display of my best/worst images.
In the Eremitani Museum, Padua: an anonymous Venetian painter of the fifteenth century.
Another anonymous Venetian from the Eremitani: enormous legs are about to become a feature of the genre…
In Andrea del Sarto’s painting at the National Gallery, London, the gigantic infant is amused by his aunt Elizabeth and cousin John, who have dropped by with the symbols of the Crucifixion.
Massive legs (looking as though they have come from a different child) and massive hair, by Bartolommeo Ramenghi (1484–1542) at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Lazzaro Bastiano (Venice, late 15th century) at the Eremitani. The baby props up his head in a manner physically impossible at his presumed age.
Marco Palmezzano (1459–1539) has produced a baby with no neck, and a rather larger head than that of his older cousin St John. (Padua, the Eremitani Museum)
A grim slab of a baby with a weary, old, face, by a Paduan painter, possibly Prospero da Piazzola (late 15th century).
Another chunky yet flat baby, gazed on by an impassive goldfinch, by Vittore Crivelli (late 15th century) in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Natty shorts, though, and he is holding a pink!
Madonna and child by Sebastiano del Piombo, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Again, disproportionately long, fat, thighs … (and a very grumpy expression).
This detail from the recently restored ‘Adoration of the Shepherds‘ in the Fitzwilliam Museum shows that Sebastiano could do a bit better, though the legs are still far too long.
The Holy Family with the infant St John, by Jacob Jordaens, in the National Gallery, London. The contrast between the sensitively depicted mother and the bizarre child is almost painful.
It’s also very strange that so few great painters can depict a convincing cat – but more on this in due course …