Happy Friday! Today on Museum Bites we’re talking babies. Awww babies. We snuggle their soft pudgy bodies, coo at their sweet innocence, and trick them out in adorable little outfits. I’ve come across a wide variety of babies on my museum travels. Many are cute and cuddly, but just as many exhibits feature babies that are perplexing, fierce, and downright creepy. From little-man babies to genetically altered mutants, I’ve pulled together a collection of favorites. We begin with little-man Jesus…
Ricky Bobby: Dear tiny, Jesus with your golden fleece diapers, with your tiny, little, fat, balled-up fists pawin’ at the air…
Chip: He was a man! He had a beard!
Ricky Bobby: I like the baby version the best, do you hear me?!
~ Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), Sony Pictures
Little Man Jesus: The Madonna & Child Enthroned (c1490) by Nicola di Maestro Antonia di Ancona and Madonna & Child with Saints, Crucifixion & Nativity (c1316-c1374) by Allegretto Nuzi are excellent examples of little-man Jesus, a popular figure in medieval art. Why, you ask, does baby Jesus look like Mini-Me from Austin Powers? European art during the Middle Ages was predominantly commissioned by the church. Christian doctrine stated that Jesus was born fully formed. In infancy, he was a homunculus or little man, who had not yet grown into his adult body. Museums are filled with these creepy little-man Christ babies. It wasn’t until the Renaissance, that the practice fell out of favor. Wealthy patrons began commissioning personal as well as family portraits and they preferred their children not look like creepy old men. And so the homunculus went on to be the subject of alchemy, folklore and Dungeons & Dragons. To learn more about the history and symbolism featured in the Madonna & Child Enthroned, click on this Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) audio clip.
Love Hurts: Our next baby hails from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Screaming Child, Stung by Bee (c1615) by Hendrik de Keyser (1565-1621) features a shrieking Cupid. Made from boxwood, de Keyser’s sculpture was inspired by an ancient Greek poem about Cupid suffering a painful bee sting while stealing honey. Notice the bee taking revenge on his temple? Despite its Renaissance roots, the receding hairline, old man ears, and fleshy neck make de Keyser’s Cupid look more like a homunculus than a cherubic archer. An architect and sculptor for the city of Amsterdam, de Keyser was best known for crafting the tomb of William the Silent (1533-1584). He was also responsible for building many famous structures throughout Amsterdam, including the Zuiderkerk, Westerkerk and Mint Towers. Hendrik’s three sons went into the family business and his son, Thomas painted our next baby.
Fun Family Fact: Cupid is the Roman god of love and the child of Venus and Mercury. Much to his mother’s dismay, Cupid fell in love with the mortal, Psyche and transformed her into his immortal wife.
A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.
~ Vito Corleone, The Godfather (1972), Paramount Pictures
All in the Family: Thomas de Keyser’s (c1596-1667) contribution to baby art has a Mafioso vibe. Thuggish baby Simon featured in Group Portrait of Three Brothers (c1627-c1632) looks more like Tony Soprano than a sweet, snuggly baby. Instead of a life spent whacking his enemies, Simon is most likely destined for the church. The crucifix around his neck, Latin inscription posted on the wall, and lack of clothes, symbolize Simon’s renunciation of wealth. These clues hint at a possible priesthood in this baby’s future.
Thomas de Keyser and his brothers, Pieter and Willem trained to be architects and stone masons, like their father, Hendrik. However, Thomas was also known for his portraiture of Amsterdam’s elite. His most famous work, Odysseus Beseeching Nausicaa (1657), hangs in the Amsterdam Stadhuis (currently the Royal Palace) that was coincidentally built by his older brother, Pieter. The brothers de Keyser also teamed up to trade stone and marble, as a means of supplementing their incomes. Click on this Google Arts & Culture link to view more of Thomas de Keyser’s work.
…whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope.
I hope, or I would not live.
~ H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896)
Mutant Baby: I stumbled across our final baby at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA). The Comforter (2010) by Patricia Piccinini depicts a life-like hairy, young girl cuddling a creature with fleshy udders on one end and pudgy baby feet on the other. At the center, a mouth with pursed lips coos in contentment. Piccinini’s strange animal-human pairings bring to mind the Beast Folk from the Island of Dr. Moreau. Despite their bizarre appearance, all of Piccinini’s creatures portray an underlying humanity and sense of nurturing. She creates these transgenic life forms to provoke questions about science, medicine, and genetics. And in doing so, Piccinini has generated much debate about her work.
In 2013, Piccinini was commissioned to create a work of art commemorating the centennial of her hometown of Canberra. After much secrecy, Skywhale, a brilliant orange, inflatable turtle sporting ten dangling teats took its maiden flight over the city. At a cost of $350,000 spectators and government officials greeted the floating spectacle with shock and awe. Click on this Patricia Piccinini link to view a slideshow and hear the artist discuss her fantastical creatures.
Fun Beast Folk Facts: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) by H. G. Wells was also panned by the public. Reviewers and fans were horrified by the grotesque and profane subject matter. They wanted to be swept away with another story highlighting the wonders of science, like Wells’s first book, The Time Machine (1895).
That concludes our bizarre baby tour. Museum Bites is gearing up for another adventure and will be back in 2 weeks. In the meantime, have a safe and fun holiday.
Cover photo by Photo by Sally Wynn, courtesy of Pixabay.