Why Babies in Medieval Paintings Look So Old and Scary

Have you ever been wandering around an art museum and found yourself chuckling at the angry middle-aged-man heads on Medieval babies? "Wow, those Medieval artists were terrible at painting children!" You probably thought to yourself. But the joke is actually on you: These artists wanted their paintings to feature mini versions of that guy from one cubicle over.

Vox spoke to Matthew Averett, an art history professor at Creighton University who edited the anthology The Early Modern Child in Art and History, to find out why this trend towards intentionally old-looking babies abounded during the Middle Ages—and what caused the shift during the Renaissance toward the chubby-cheeked cherubic faces we recognize as babies.

The reasoning, like all things artistic in the Middle Ages, has to do with Jesus. Back then, the Church commissioned most of the portraits of babies and children. And they didn't want just any old baby—they wanted the baby Jesus (or other biblical kids). Medieval artists subscribed to the concept of homunculus, which literally means "little man," or the belief that Jesus was born "perfectly formed and unchanged," Averett said.

This homuncular, adult-looking baby Jesus became the standard for all children, an exemplar that stuck in the Middle Ages because artists at the time had, according to Averett, a "lack of interest in naturalism, and they veered more toward expressionistic conventions."

During the Renaissance, however, non-religious art flourished, and wealthy patrons wanted portraits of their darling children that were cute—not Benjamin Button-esque. Add a greater attention to realism, and babies began shifting away from the hyper-stylized homuncular.

10 Amazing Pieces of Peeps Art

“Edgar Allan Peep” by Christian Twamley / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council
“Edgar Allan Peep” by Christian Twamley / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

Some people paint, some scrapbook, and others create Game of Thrones-inspired dragon sculptures made of 5000 marshmallow Peeps. Candy art may seem like an unusual form of craftsmanship, but it’s more common than you might expect in the lead-up to Easter, when organizations around the country host Peeps art contests.

The aforementioned dragon, as well as the artworks pictured below, were all submitted to the “PEEPshow” contest—a fundraiser for the Carroll County Arts Council in Westminster, Maryland. According to event organizers, the event became the first exhibition of Peeps art when it debuted 12 years ago.

Keep scrolling to see some of the best Peeps sculptures from recent years (2017-2019), and visit the Art Council’s website to see all of this year's participants. (As of Friday afternoon, a Warhol-inspired artwork of "Marilyn Peeproe" appears to be in the lead.)

A space-themed Peeps display
“First Peeps in Space” by International Delight / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A samurai sculpture
"Sugar Samurai" by Tristar Martial Arts / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

The rabbit from Alice in Wonderland
“I’m Late, I’m Late (for the PEEPshow)” by Vivian Davis / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A caterpillar sculpture
“The Very Hungry Caterpeeper” by Lia Finch and M / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A sculpture inspired by a painting
“Peep with the Pearl Earring” by Sandy Oxx / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council


“Edgar Allan Peep” by Christian Twamley / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A Belle sculpture
“Beauty and the Peep” by Candace Birger, Westminster Cake Studio / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

Fish sculpture
“The Rainbow Fish” by Jen, Justin, Connor, and Jacob Myers / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A Gumby sculpture
“Just Gumby” by Sydney Blacksten / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A sculpture of a monster
“Percy the Purple Peeple Eater” by the Koontz Family / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

Artist Turns 5000 Marshmallow Peeps Into a Game of Thrones Dragon

PEEPS® and Vivian Davis
PEEPS® and Vivian Davis

Game of Thrones returns to HBO for its eighth and final season on Sunday, April 14. Instead of worrying about which of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons (if any) will survive to see the end of the series, distract yourself with some playful Peeps art inspired by the creatures.

In 2018, artist Vivian Davis (who's on Instagram as @tutoringart) constructed a Game of Thrones-themed dragon sculpture out of 5000 marshmallow Peeps as part of PEEPshow, an annual Peeps-themed event in Westminster, Maryland. The dragon has her wings outstretched, with a nest of colorful eggs in front of her. It's not quite life-sized, but it is massive—the candy model measures 8.5 feet tall, with a 7-foot wingspan. For comparison, Gwendoline Christie, who plays Brienne of Tarth, is 6 feet, 3 inches (or 75 Peeps chicks) tall.

A 'Game of Thrones' dragon made of PEEPS chicks with its wings spread
PEEPS® and Vivian Davis

Easter falls on Sunday, April 21 this year (also the premiere date of Game of Thrones season 8, episode 2) which means that Peeps season is in full swing. For more delicious Peeps content, check out these facts about the cute candy.

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