Disability depicted: the Old Masters, Part 1


Some of the greatest Old Master artists, through the centuries, portrayed disability. In three articles, Parts One, Two and Three, Charles Josefson explores twelve of these portrayals. In Part One he considers the Luttrell Psalter, Duccio, Mantegna and Brueghel the Elder.

Galleries, auction houses, and some art historians speak of the Old Masters. But who qualifies as an Old Master? Typically, the term Old Master refers to European painters working during the period 1300-1830. Certainly, we all know an Old Master when we see one: Van Eyck, Leonardo, Titian, Vermeer or Rubens. In three articles I shall explore how a selection of twelve Old Master artists depicted disability, and how these depictions reflected changing societal attitudes to disability.

Duccio (active 1278; died 1319), The Healing of the Man Born Blind (1307-8-11), egg tempera on wood, National Gallery, London.

Duccio di Buoninsegna The Healing of the Man Born Blind

Duccio di Buoninsegna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When we think of the Early Renaissance, the rebirth of art, we think of Florence. But though that great city may rightly call itself the cradle of the Renaissance, seeking the origins of the new artistic movement we should also look to Sienna. Above all, to the Sienese artist Duccio, one of the pivotal painters of the Early Renaissance; the founder of the Sienese School, his influence was felt through generations of artists, particularly in his hometown, but also in Florence.

Creator of lyrical paintings that introduced a warmth of human feeling, Duccio’s style reflects the influence of the Florentine painter Cimabue and Byzantine art. Began in 1308, his greatest masterpiece was his double-sided altarpiece, The Maestà, one of the largest, richest and most complex ever produced; incorporating urban views, landscapes, and sophisticated interior settings. It was ceremoniously processioned through a rejoicing populace to Siena Cathedral in June 1311, and given pride of place on the high altar. Such an impressive altarpiece could not have been accomplished without the help of a large workshop of assistants.

Dismembered in 1771, the bulk of the work remains in Sienna at the Cathedral Museum, but much has been dispersed to different collections. The front of the altarpiece showed the Virgin and Child entwined with saints and apostles, with pinnacles showing the last days of the Virgin, while the reverse had scenes from the life of Christ: his ministry, his Passion, his Resurrection. One of the panels from the predella, kept at the National Gallery, London, depicts disability, The Healing of the Man Born Blind.

At Jerusalem, his apostles crammed at his back, Christ dominates the centre of the composition, stooping slightly to touch the eyes of the blind man. Duccio offers up a miraculous before and after two-part image. With a fountain at his feet, dropping his stick, the blind man is depicted again in an ecstasy of appreciation for the restoration of his sight, looking up to his right, where there was originally a panel showing The Transfiguration, which is also on display at the National Gallery.

Enabling the miracle, the story goes that Jesus had placed mud in the eyes of the blind man and told him to wash it off at the fountain of Siloam. Observing the blind man in the street, the disciples ask: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind.” Clinging to the common belief of their time, they assume disability results from sin. Jesus disabuses them of this. And teaches: “Neither he nor his parents sinned; the works of God might be made manifest in him”. Or, that rather than serve as some punishment, the impairment offers the opportunity to do good: to be charitable.

Anonymous scribes, The Luttrell Psalter (c. 1320–1340), The British Library (click here to view image).

One of the most wondrous and famous medieval manuscripts, the Luttrell Psalter was made in the diocese of Lincoln for Geoffrey Luttrell of Irnham, likely between 1325 and 1335. One of the most powerful images is the patron portrait of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, shown in the prime of youth mounted on his splendid warhorse, wearing his full amour, attended by his supportive wife Agnes Sutton and daughter-in-law Beatrice Scrope.

Written in distinctive, square Latin script, embellished with gold and silver, the psalter comprises 309 vellum leaves with fly leaves of paper. It contains the psalms and canticles, a calendar of church festivals and saint’s days, and a litany with collects and the office of the dead. One master artist produced a large amount of the rich illuminations, but at least five different artists were involved, whereas the text is the work of a single scribe.

As well as marginal images of saints and stories from the bible, there are also demonic grotesques (hybrid animal and human forms) and quotidian, idyllic scenes courtly and rural; sometimes humorous, whimsical or satirical, always vivid: plowing, seeding, sowing, harvesting, but also medieval medicine, archery, bear-baiting, dancing, wrestling, musicians, hawking, and even domestic violence, with a wife beating her husband with her spinning rod.

Interestingly, the psalter includes an image of a disabled child, with a collection bowl, being transported on a flattened wheelbarrow. The man who pushes the barrow wears a strap around his shoulders to help him take up the weight, while another man opens up his purse to give the child alms.

This great treasure, so rare, representing the last stage of the brilliantly accomplished East Anglian School of manuscript illumination, is held at the British Library, London. Before the Library was separated from the Museum, the psalter was kept at the British Museum. It was bought in 1929, for the sum of £31,500, from Mary Angela Noyes, wife to the poet Alfred Noyes, with the assistance of an interest-free loan from the American millionaire and art collector J. P. Morgan.

Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), Virgin and Child (c. 1460), tempera on canvas, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo.

Andrea Mantegna Virgin and Child

Andrea Mantegna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The English physician Dr John Langston Down first described Down Syndrome in 1866, but the cause for the Syndrome was discovered more recently in 1959, when the French physician Jérôme Lejeune identified Down Syndrome as a chromosomal condition. Instead of the usual 46 chromosomes present in each cell, Lejeune observed 47 in the cells of individuals with Down Syndrome. An extra partial or whole copy of chromosome 21 results in the characteristics of Down Syndrome. One in seven hundred children are born with the syndrome.

There has been curiosity to find historical accounts of Down Syndrome, and research suggests two Old Masters who may have depicted people with it.

First, Dr. Brian Stratford, a specialist in developmental disabilities at the University of Nottingham, has suggested that the Italian Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna used a little boy with Down Syndrome as the model for his Christ child.

The patron of Mantegna, the Gonzaga duke of Mantua, had a boy with an unidentified “sickness”. And one of Mantegna’s fourteen children also had this unidentified condition. Dr Stratford posits they may have both had Down Syndrome. Did Mantegna and Gonzaga have a shared sympathetic appreciation for the qualities of Down Syndrome? Did they see Down Syndrome children, possibly their own children, with these qualities — love, tenderness, or gentleness — as being in the image of Christ?

Follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar, The Adoration of the Christ Child

Follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar (Netherlandish, active ca. 1515), The Adoration of the Christ Child, Oil on wood, Metropolitan Museum of Art. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Second, according to a book by authors Andrew Levitas and Cheryl Reid, a sixteenth-century Flemish Nativity painting, The Adoration of the Christ Child, may also depict Down Syndrome. The researchers focussed on the angel to Mary’s left, noting the facial features resembling Down Syndrome and the fingers which seem shorter. Do we look upon a beloved daughter, with the syndrome, raised by the wealthy Flemish family who patronised the artist?

As well, the authors felt the shepherd directly above the angel in the middle also has facial features suggestive of Down Syndrome. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who hold the painting, the unknown artist was a follower of Jan Joest of Kalker.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569), The Beggars (1568), oil on panel, Louvre, Paris

With Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Brueghel the Elder is one of the Four Apostles of the Netherlandish Northern Renaissance, especially renowned for his landscapes and witty scenes of peasant life; the founder of a powerhouse dynasty of painters which survived into the eighteenth century.

Held at the Louvre, Paris, The Beggars or The Cripples is a small, but powerful painting which perplexes with its ambiguous meaning. At first glance the beggars seem to have an air of madness. They throng the sunlit courtyard of a hospital built of red brick, and are about to disperse to begin their begging. A woman in the background clutches her begging bowl.

Pieter Bruegel the The Beggars (1568)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder The Beggars (1568)

Why are these beggars so grouped? Why are they so curiously dressed? What can be the meaning of the hanging fox tails pinned to their clothes? There is much interesting subtext. Only some can be explained. Scholars have suggested the scene may allude to Koppermaandag, the feast day of the beggars held annually on the Monday after Epiphany. Like carollers at Christmas, the beggars would sing and collect alms. Their peculiar hats are undoubtedly some form of carnival headgear.

Moreover, the beggars likely represent different classes: a cardboard crown, the king; a mitre, the bishop; a paper shako, the soldier; a beret, the middle class; and a cap, the peasant. The work clearly has some political message. But the message itself remains unclear. Can it have something to do with the Beggars Revolt?

On 5 April 1566 two hundred Calvinist nobles, calling themselves The Beggars, rode through Brussels to present a petition of grievances to Margaret of Parma, regent for the Habsburg Emperor Phillip II. The two chief grievances were taxation and a demand for greater local autonomy. Some scholars have supposed the fox tails to be a symbol of those lords who revolted against the Spanish occupation. Is Bruegel announcing his sympathy for the Beggars? Do the lowly cripples, representing different classes, represent some sort of ailing society about to be upturned?

Certainly, Brueghel was deeply concerned with political and religious issues. He dared portray the Massacre of the Innocents being carried out by Spanish troops. He was a keen exponent of satirical humour. The picture of the beggars seems to have a mocking air. Brueghel’s purpose is surely not to mock the disabled. Rather he is likely satirising the contemporary political situation. Though, is he obliquely mocking the disabled by suggesting the social classes are as “foolish as cripples”? Though the full meaning of this picture may be lost, the composition, the round dance bathed in light, mesmerises still.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Blind Leading the Blind

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Blind Leading the Blind (1568), distemper on linen canvas, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Elsewhere in his work Brueghel depicts disability. He was especially interested in the blind. Maybe this reflects a subconscious fear of the ageing artist. Brueghel included a blind group in The Battle Between Carnival and Lent. In 1568 he painted, The Blind Leading the Blind, which depicts the biblical parable from the Gospel of Matthew.

Holding staffs, the figures follow their leader who has fallen into a ditch. Each has a different ocular affliction: corneal Leukoma, atrophy of globe or removed eyes. The frieze-like diagonal composition successfully creates a feeling of motion and shows off Brueghel’s mastery of foreshortening. Again, the meaning of this work is highly ambiguous, and all manner of theories religious and political have been formulated.

Do these well-dressed blind men represent false priests who ignored Christ’s exhortations not to carry gold, purses or staves? Does the inclusion of the church mean this picture carries an anti-Catholic message? Or the opposite: is the strong church a symbol of faith that offers true vision? Are these rich blind men the higher classes? Is this a subversive picture? Are they representative of all men doomed to fail because they have veered from the true path of god? Does the greater glory of this work lie in its rich ambiguity which allows it to be variously interpreted? As with the first picture, your guess is as good as mine.