A 16th Century Depiction of Down Syndrome

While surfing the Internet, my baby girl sound asleep in my arms, I came across this nativity painting, which is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

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It is called “The Adoration of the Christ Child” and is believed to be one recreation of a similar work that went missing. Whereas the Met claims that the “most compelling feature” of the painting is the “‘great and ineffable light’…emanating from the Child,” there is something more powerful at work here than the painter experimenting with lighting techniques.1

During the 16th century, when prominent public figures as formidable as Martin Luther were demonizing the cognitively challenged, this artist immortalized on canvas a man with Down syndrome as an angel, and not just any angel—an angel illuminated by the divine glow of baby Jesus.

So why would this artist present an angel with Down syndrome? As discussed by Levitas and Reid, “Artists are known to depict the world around them as they see it, not always reflecting the views of the prevailing culture.…There are several possible explanations for the benign depiction of an individual with disabilities in 16th-century culture: the individual with disabilities was used for symbolic purposes; the artist had warm feelings toward the model regardless of disability; the disabilities were not recognized as such.”2

In the short time that I have known my baby Hope, from learning her kicks and sleeping patterns in my belly to watching her grow and thrive as a newborn and infant, the world has conditioned me to fight for her to be understood, accepted, and respected. So any time I don’t have to do that, I am admittedly caught off guard and relieved. The idea that an individual with Down syndrome was not only accepted five centuries ago, but also celebrated, brings tears to my eyes. The joy that family must have felt for their loved one to be accepted by society, or at the very least given a chance for acceptance via this painting, was undoubtedly greater and more unexpected than my own.

There is nothing about this painting that causes offense. The painting is absolutely beautiful. “After all the speculations, we are left with a haunting late-medieval image of a person with apparent Down syndrome with all the accouterments of divinity. It is impossible to know whether any disability had been recognized or whether it simply was not relevant in that time and place.”2

The authors go on to discuss the physical characteristics of the angel in question, the likelihood that one of the shepherds also has Down syndrome, and a variety of scenarios (e.g., the individual had a mild form of Down syndrome known as mosaic Down syndrome; the individual was loved by his family or community) that led the artist to render the image of an individual with Down syndrome in a nativity painting, assuming the painting used the likeness of a model, which was common practice during the time.

I invite you to explore the article in detail by clicking here: An angel with Down syndrome in a sixteenth century Flemish Nativity painting.


1“The Adoration of the Christ Child.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed July 6, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436781.

2Levitas AS, Reid CS. An angel with Down syndrome in a sixteenth century Flemish Nativity painting. Am J Med Genet. 2003;116A(4):399–405. doi: 10.1002/ajmg.a.10043.

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