If you spend, at least, some time online, you will probably see people make fun of European Medieval art. Many of these paintings do look kind of weird. Even if you are a historian or just someone who is extremely open-minded about art, you have to admit that Medieval artwork is drastically different from what was created during any other period. The Middle Ages were far from a cultural monolith, and people today have come to associate certain characteristics with the art of that time. But why was Medieval art like this?
Religion, Perspective, and Ugly Babies: Why Medieval Art Looks Bad
Let’s compare a work of art created in the Middle Ages and, let’s say, a late Renaissance painting. One of the first things you notice is that the latter is pretty realistic, while the former is highly stylized and flat. If you feel like the Medieval artists did not care about realism, you are correct. In fact, the purpose of art was entirely different in the Dark Ages.
Most of the art created during that period was religious. Icons depicting saints, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and scenes from the Bible were extremely widespread in Medieval Europe. The objective of artwork was not to entertain or be aesthetically pleasing (that was not even a thing yet) but to inspire good morals and scare those who might want to sin. Since all of the art was so spiritual, realism was not valued. It was the meaning that mattered, not visuals or other “materialistic” things.
Another feature of Medieval art that adds to its signature look is the absence of depth. It is not that artists back then did not understand perspective — they simply chose to not use it. This could be explained by, once again, the subjects that they depicted. For example, angels or saints were given unnatural proportions and made much larger than other figures to highlight their otherworldliness.
Now, for the question that has been bothering everyone: the notorious “ugly babies” you see in Medieval art are supposed to be Jesus. The reason for their adult-like features is that Christians believed the Savior was born perfect and did not need to change, even with age.
Once you realize that Medieval paintings look how they do for a reason, the myth of the Dark Ages being barbaric and impossible to understand starts to crumble. After all, humans did not change too much over centuries.