Art Talk

When it comes to art, the outermost limits of my expertise are summarized by two aphorisms:

De gustibus



Beyond that, it’s just a smattering of stuff, much of which you will hear in this blog entry.

I mention this because last week I found this delightful bit of medieval art:

Yep! It’s a medieval snowball fight: the very best kind of snowball fight!

Comments ensued when I posted this at Ye Booke of Face:

Dan saith:

Medieval art is wild.I am entertained by a series on “medieval artists who obviously never saw a baby before” on TikTok.

And I replied

Personally, I love all the crazy rabbits in medieval art.

Dan added:

Here we have a tiny 29 yo former frat dude on Mary’s lap.

When you think your mother reincarnated as a cat.

Cats and babies clearly drawn by men who never saw either.

To which I replied:

Or who are just bad at drawing. 🙂

Dan continued:

Baby Jesus incarnated as a 45 year old man on the bowling league.

Then Anthony remarked:

In regard to the Child Jesus in icons looking either ripped or suffering from male pattern baldness, hypothetically the idea was to communicate the Divinity–“This is no normal baby, He is the Divine Wisdom/the Power of God, with a human nature.” While the iconographic tradition doesn’t really like changing from the old style (literally copying the lines/imitating the exact ways other people have done XYZ icon), people have gotten a little better at realizing, “Maybe we don’t need Old-Man-Baby-Jesus to communicate this… “

And Dan responded:

So, I am suspicious of piety being re-written into incompetent behaviors.I need to see this in contemporary discussions.Because they can’t draw cats either.

So I replied:

I’m not convinced it is incompetence. The portrayal of children as mini-adults may be a deliberate choice done for theological reasons. Iconography has its own peculiar vocabulary. The push for photo-realism in art is relatively recent in Christian art and centered in the west. Much of Christian art is more concerned with the message than with realism. Complaining of bad depictions of children in icons may be akin to saying that this is a bad representation of a *real* orca whale:

Which brings us to now and my question to readers:

I have a vague notion of hearing somewhere that there is actually a theological reason for drawing children as little adults in some iconography, but I could be wrong. If one of my readers with an art background could correct me or fill in the blanks, I’d be mighty beholden to you! Discuss below in the comboxes.


5 Responses

  1. “The aim of good prose words is to mean what they say. The aim of good poetical words is to mean what they do not say.” (G.K. Chesterton)

    The same applies to the visual arts. The aim of a painting or a sculpture is not necessarily always hyper-realism. Art aims to show Truth, not Fact.

    That said, I have to concur that I find a lot of medieval art downright bizarre and unlovely. Sometimes there is no Deep Point. Sometimes it’s just bad art.

  2. Representative art developed over time. Early European artists hadn’t really figured out perspective and that makes things very strange. Any period is bound by conventions, as well, and that puts limits on the depiction of religious subjects. Art History Fun Fact — We don’t really think that Our Lady necessarily wore blue clothing. That convention comes from a time when blue pigments were especially expensive, so the little blue paint on hand was used for the Madonna.

    You also have to consider that not everybody making religious art was necessarily gifted, A Madonna and Child from 1200AD might be interesting and significant because of its age, whether or not the painter was an especially good artist.

  3. My favorite art historian of all time is Sister Wendy Beckett.

    I stumbled across her on PBS one day, in full Carmelite habit, describing a gay man’s naughty bits, and his expression of deep desire. Her great reverence and and enthusiasm stunned me! She lisps due to a marked overbite which is quite charming as well.

  4. My wife loves icons, has taken classes for painting them. I have heard from her what your reader Anthony and you have said. So, at least that is what is being taught and discussed at icon painting classes…

  5. I was under the impression that icons are something with their own specific visual vocabulary, where every little thing has a specific meaning. It’s more or less a Christian-specific version of heraldry, but even more picky. And the paintings presented here don’t look like icons to me. That said, there’s nothing stopping someone from incorporating customs from icons into regular paintings.

    That said, after being let down by candy canes and the twelve days of Christmas and a few more I’m forgetting offhand, I’m going to side with Dan and assume there’s no specific theology until I see some specific evidence.

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