Sunday, May 19, 2013

Down syndrome depicted in Renaissance Art

Today's post is a deviation from the typical anecdotes and photos of Josie, Leanne, and the other chromosomally deprived "co-stars" of CCE.  Instead, we will have a little art history lesson.  Did you know that individuals with Down syndrome are represented in art that dates back to the Renaissance era? 
This 16th century Flemish Nativity painting, The Adoration of the Christ Child, may be one of the earliest European depictions of Down syndrome.  The angel on Mary's left and possibly the shepherd in the center of the background are identified as having characteristics of Down syndrome including:  a flattened mid-face, epicanthal folds, upslanted palpebral fissures, a small and upturned tip of the nose, and downward curving of the corners of the mouth. The hands, crossed over the breast, have short fingers, especially on the left.
According to Levitas and Reid, authors of An angel with Down syndrome in a sixteenth century Flemish Nativity painting, the angelic depiction of an individual with Down syndrome was symbolic and may denote that the artist had an affinity for individuals with disabilities.  It also raises questions of the status and value of individuals with special needs in Medieval society.  Or perhaps the physical indicators of Down syndrome were not recognized by society as an abnormality.
Andrea Mantegna was an Italian painter who is said to have depicted Christ as a child with Down syndrome in three different paintings.  The child who served as the model was thought to belong to either Mantegna himself, or perhaps he was a child of the wealthy and influential Gonzaga family who hired Mantegna because their child shared the same condition.

Dr. Brian Stratford, a specialist in developmental disabilities at the University of Nottingham, infers that Mantegna and Gonzaga wanted to highlight their shared appreciation of the humanity of children with Down syndrome “Perhaps Mantegna saw in this child something beyond the deficiencies which now so occupy our attention and perhaps then, the qualities of love, forgiveness, gentleness, and innocence were more readily recognized. Maybe Mantegna saw these qualities as more representative of Christ than others we now regard so highly.”
To read more about the role of Trisomy 21 in Renaissance art, check out:
The New Atlantis At Home With Down Syndrome
The Metropolitan Museum of Art The Adoration of the Christ Child


  1. So interesting! Where do you find this stuff? Now I want to learn more, but I SHOULD be working on IEPs!

  2. That is so interesting. Maybe the the qualities of love, forgiveness, gentleness, and innocence were valued.

  3. How interesting! Thank you for sharing.

  4. the first picture is on the front of a book i just purchased 'Disability in the Christian Tradition.' my pastor is currently getting his doctorate from the university of alberdeen, and one of his professors has a son with Down syndrome-he also was one of the editors of this book.
    it's a super heady theological book-but i'm excited to read it-and to learn more about the art work on the front. :)

  5. It is pretty cool. I had read about this a few years ago and read it again at this blog which has a great little series about the history of Down syndrome. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Interesting. I just bought the book "Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimaging Disability in Late Modernity" by Amos Young and we were commenting on the artwork on the front. It doesn't say who the artist is, but is also renaissance art.

  7. Loved the art history lesson, very interesting.

  8. These paintings are so amazing! I definitely want to look into these further.

  9. Thank you for the paintings! I remember seeing a painting about a philosopher (Aristotle? Socrates? Plato?) who said that a specific individual was the model for humanity (I am currently trying to re-find the painting). At the time of first seeing the painting, I did not give it much attention, but I did give note that the model human appeared to have Down Syndrome. About twenty-five years ago I visited an agency that provided light labor for individuals with Down Syndrome, and I was very highly impressed with the workers' quality of politeness, happiness, gentleness, friendliness, and caring for other people. I now agree with the painting. In my business I have met hundreds of thousands of people of all walks of life and most all levels of IQ, but the only ones that hold my heart were the Down Syndrome workers. Thank you again for the paintings and your website!