Clues in art: Down syndrome through history

By Marisa Martin


Art studies are proving that ours is the most fear-laden, backward and bloody of all eras. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s true in at least one aspect: our treatment of children with Down syndrome.

Thanks to the fruits of science, we can crack open the “oven” a bit early to see if our little progeny is as perfect as we deserve. If not, a bloody state-funded industry exists to eliminate them, and it does its job with grisly aplomb.

Down syndrome was virtually unmentioned in science and literature until 1866, and its genetic aspect (known as Trisomy 21) was not discovered until 1959. But these children existed and may have even thrived in other eras. Art proves it.

Early researchers found several pieces of ancient and pre-modern art of people with extreme Down-like features. Among them were statues and carvings from the Greco-Roman world, pre-Columbian figurines, and even images from Khmer temples.

Scientists and researchers have unearthed others. French pediatricians Andre Stahl and Pierre Tourame claimed that Italian and Flemish Renaissance artists represented “trisomy 21 in paintings of religious inspiration.” John M. Starbuck did extensive research (including in the arts) as a post-graduate fellow of cranio-facial abnormalities and genetics.

The Adoration of the Christ Child – with details of Down featured individuals. By a follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar – German Netherlandish (ca.1515) Details by Andrew Levitas and Cheryl Reid.
The Adoration of the Christ Child – with details of Down featured individuals. By a follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar – German Netherlandish (ca.1515) Details by Andrew Levitas and Cheryl Reid.

Earlier, psychiatrist Andrew Levitas and geneticist Cheryl Reid studied “qualitative facial analysis” from some Renaissance paintings to confirm or deny the possibility of the models having Down syndrome. They came up with several.

“We have identified a 16th‐century Flemish Nativity painting in which one angelic figure appears distinctly different from other individuals in the painting with an appearance of Down syndrome.” Levitas and Reid’s angel was in “The Adoration of the Christ Child” (by a follower of Jan Joest ca.1515). He sits in a row of angels, just to the left of Mary.

This seraph with classical Down’s features isn’t the only one in the manger scene. A shepherd standing in the middle of the painting has Down-type features as well. And one fluttering baby angel overhead looks much the same.

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) was the scene of a scholarly fuss over one of their paintings by Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna, “Madonna and Child” (ca 1460). In 1982, a specialist in developmental disabilities, Dr. Brian Stratford, questioned whether Mantegna’s baby Jesus was a Down’s child. Stratford made a positive clinical diagnosis from facial features and shape of the hands and feet. But the museum’s curator insisted the infant’s features were mere coincidence and even attributed the painting to a less prominent follower or assistant of Mantegna.

Then a Roman history professor backed up Stratford’s version. Mantegna’s patron, the Gonzaga family, “had a boy with an unidentified ‘sickness,'” she said. Also, the Italian artist had a child of his own with the same condition, giving them a strong emotional bond. Stratford claimed that using a Down child for baby Jesus stressed his human worth, not just the deficiencies. This little face appeared in at least three different Mantegna paintings of Christ’s infancy. “Perhaps … [back] then, the qualities of love, forgiveness, gentleness, and innocence were more readily recognized,” Stratford reflected. “Maybe Mantegna saw these qualities as more representative of Christ than others we now regard so highly.”

"Madonna and Child" Andrea Mantegna (ca 1460). Model for Jesus diagnosed by geneticist as having Down syndrome.
“Madonna and Child” Andrea Mantegna (ca 1460). Model for Jesus diagnosed by geneticist as having Down syndrome.

Modeling for Christ and the angelic host was surely a great honor during the highly religious Renaissance. Why were they so gloriously treated? Reid and Levitas suggest the artists may have felt compassion for them. Or perhaps their appearance was symbolic of comedy, or fear and evil (like other mental illnesses at the time). But symptoms of Down syndrome weren’t recognized as a disorder then.

Certainly the painters had other options for models, since few Down babies would be likely to survive long at that time. This led the researchers to other questions, such as “How were people with anomalies and ‘major malformations’ treated and valued in the 16th century?” It appears it may be better than now in some ways.

Overall today, the disabled are considered uninteresting, unattractive and often of no value. Oh, they make cameo appearances in films and talent shows, giving the hosts a chance to say something sentimental and glib. This soothes our conscience, while we haven’t dealt with the important questions like, “Are you a valid person? And, should we kill you, since you are so much of a bother?”

I’ve not pondered Down syndrome much before, but this 2017 headline (from CBS) caught my eye and made me think: “Why Down syndrome in Iceland has almost disappeared.” They explained that almost all pregnant women in Iceland take prenatal tests which generally catch “problems,” and these problems are quickly disposed of. The rest of the West isn’t far behind eradicating Down syndrome in the same way.

Some people in the 21st century are working to change that. An expectant father of a Down syndrome son looked in vain for anything about the condition in comics. Failing to find it, Chip Reese teamed up with an illustrator, and they created “Metaphase.” In it his son, Ollie, battles just as heroically as he did in real life to survive many surgeries. Alterna Comics asked to help market the book, and Reece intends on continuing Ollie’s adventures into the future.

Ollie Reece (left) and the comic book character (right) from the original book his dad wrote, "Metaphase." Photo: Chip Reece
Ollie Reece (left) and the comic book character (right) from the original book his dad wrote, “Metaphase.” Photo: Chip Reece

He isn’t the only one working to change public perception of Down syndrome. In February, the Guardian featured work done by Daniel Vais for his photography book, “Radical Beauty Project.” Vais, an Israeli-born choreographer, began to work with people with Down syndrome and developed a passion for it. He also has a Down syndrome dance company called “Culture Device,” which is successful enough to perform at the Royal Opera House in Britain. So far, so good. But it was too good to be true.

Vais’s website also touts “Drag Syndrome,” which features Down syndrome youth as drag kings and queens, with a planned world tour. The Guardian has no moral issue with this, per current required silence on all things touching LGBT debauchery. But it’s ugly, so ugly I won’t link to the photos of young men and women monstrously dabbed with brief clothing and face paint, who can’t possibly understanding the sexual implications of drag. Vais’ attempts are sad and unattractive by any standard of beauty: male, female or fictional points beyond. These shots mock the models more than any schoolyard bullies ever could. They are reminiscent of Victorian circus photos of caged Africans and nude, bearded women. And they cater to the same type of voyeurs, despite pretensions to “high art.”

Read about the odious history and current aggression of gay militants, as well as how to defend yourself from them, in Marisa Martin’s eBook, “Bitter Rainbows: Pederasts, Politics, and Hate Speech” on Amazon. Print version coming soon.

Vais claims he “fears for the future” of the people he exploits. Granted, being used to fulfill the fantasies of the sexually decrepit is a step up from being butchered in the womb. We can give him that, but it is nowhere near showing respect and honor for the fully human and fully equal.

Researcher Levitas had this to say about the images of Down syndrome children from old paintings: “After all the speculations, we are left with a haunting late-medieval image of a person with apparent Down syndrome with all the accoutrements of divinity.” This painting came from a time reputed to be superstitious, fearful, xenophobic,and unscientific.

If we have plummeted so far beneath them in our treatment of the vulnerable, how much of a Dark Age are we in now?


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