Artist: Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, Valenciennes 1827–1875 Courbevoie)
Culture: French, Paris
Medium: Saint-Béat marble
Dimensions: Overall (confirmed): 77 3/4 × 59 × 43 1/2 in., 4955 lb. (197.5 × 149.9 × 110.5 cm, 2247.6 kg);
Pedestal (wt. confirmed): 3759 lb. (1705.1 kg)
Credit Line: Purchase, Josephine Bay Paul and C. Michael Paul Foundation Inc. Gift, Charles Ulrick and Josephine Bay Foundation Inc. Gift, and Fletcher Fund, 1967
Accession Number: 67.250
The subject of this intensely Romantic work is derived from canto XXXIII of Dante's Inferno, which describes how the Pisan traitor Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, his sons, and his grandsons were imprisoned in 1288 and died of starvation. Carpeaux's visionary statue, executed in 1865–67, reflects the artist's passionate reverence for Michelangelo, specifically for The Last Judgment (1536–41) in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican, Rome, as well as his own painstaking concern with anatomical realism.
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Standing in the middle of Bern, Switzerland, is the Kindlifresser, or “Child Eater.” The towering statue has a baby half-stuffed into his mouth and carries a sack full of three alarmed tots on his shoulder—presumably for later snacking.
The disturbing sculpture is no modern work of art; built in 1546, it is one of the oldest fountains in the city of Bern.
Strangely, no one is sure why it’s there. There are a few theories—the first and most unfortunate possibility is that the Kindlifresser is an expression of anti-Semitism. The Kindlifresser wears a hat that is strikingly similar to the yellow pointed Judenhut that Jews were forced to wear at that time. The baby-eating may reflect blood libel, the belief that Jewish people kidnapped Christian children to use their blood in rituals.
The second theory is that the terrifying ogre is a depiction of Kronos, the Greek Titan. Kronos has arguably one of the most disturbing stories in Greek Mythology. Long story short: Kronos eats all six of his children to keep them from taking over his throne.
The third possibility is that the Kindlifresser is simply a sort of boogie man from Switzerland’s Fastnacht, or ''Night of Fasting'' festival—a way to remind the youngsters of Bern to behave. Regardless of what the Kindlifresser represents, it has terrified Swiss children for nearly 500 years.
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