Down Syndrome in Ancient Art

October 22, 2013 by Erna Albertz
Image copyright ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

In preparing for a presentation on disability history I gave two weeks ago to Ministry of Health and Social Service officials in Russia, I stumbled across the research of John M. Starbuck, who examined the depiction of people with Down syndrome in ancient and medieval art. His entire paper is worth looking at but one item stood out for me in particular.

In 1515 the painting “The Adoration of the Christ Child,” was created by a follower of the Dutch painter Jan Joest of Kalkar. A close look at the artwork reveals two characters who appear to have Down syndrome. One a shepherd–looking down at the scene from behind a post at the center of the painting–and the other an angel standing beside the mother Mary, these two participants in the nativity are situated in what would seem to be places of honor. Because the painter is unknown, his motive for placing them there can only be surmised. He may have had a child with Down syndrome or simply known individuals with the condition. At that time, the syndrome also may not have been formally diagnosed as it is today. What seems beyond doubt is that he felt they belonged there, in the midst of the holy scene.

Tears came to my eyes when first examining this painting: I have a younger sister with Down syndrome and can strongly relate to what the painter must have been trying to convey. Against what must surely have been a hostile environment for people with disabilities, his work attests to the power of love. I thought you’d appreciate seeing it too.

I don’t have to tell you which painting will be hanging on my wall this Christmas!

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Reply by Michelle on November 12, 2013 at 9:25 PM
I have noticed this in other paintings in the San Francisco museum, mostly when looking at the faces of angels. To me it has seemed that people in the past have honored people with DS with a busy after life They recognized their value and also the fact that many passed into the arms of Jesus at a young age.
Reply by edith on November 13, 2013 at 10:02 PM
Reply by Faith on November 20, 2013 at 9:03 AM
I teach a Sunday School Class for children with Developmental Disabilities. One of my students has Down Syndrome. What a BEAUTIFUL!!!! picture. I plan on sharing it with my students parents.
Reply by Edward on November 29, 2013 at 6:38 PM
What a wonderful find! I was very moved when I saw the painting since I have a beautiful granddaughter with Down syndrome and she is an angel. Thanks for this treat. We are ordering one for her room and for my office.
Reply by Erna on December 12, 2013 at 9:01 AM
Edward, That is great to hear. Have a Merry Christmas!
Reply by michelle on December 11, 2013 at 12:36 PM
thank you so much for sharing!
Reply by Renee on December 11, 2013 at 2:15 PM
How do I get a copy of that picture? Can I order a print?
Reply by Erna on December 12, 2013 at 9:16 AM
Renee, I would look at the prints offered at or All the best!
Reply by Chris on December 11, 2013 at 4:47 PM
Wonderful & beautiful. Thank you.
Reply by Britny on December 11, 2013 at 7:11 PM
Thanks! This is beautiful. I have a five year old with Down Syndrome. She is truly an angel.
Reply by Cynthia on December 12, 2013 at 11:36 AM
Love this. I have long held the theory that many of the mythical creatures depicted in ancient art are as a result of persons with developmental disabilties being present at courts, in villiages, just being present period. Actually seeing someone with Down Syndrome depicted as a non-mythical creature, but a person belonging in the picture is very heart warming indeed and confirms, to a certain extent my thoughts on mythology. My son has down syndrome and is very much an angel.
Reply by Erna on December 16, 2013 at 9:11 AM
Yes, that's what warmed my heart too - seeing that the two people appearing to have Down syndrome were simply part of the picture.
Reply by Maggie on December 14, 2013 at 10:30 AM
Being the parent of a beautiful nearly 14 year-old Down Syndrome daughter I find this discovery absolutely amazing! I have often wondered about how intigrated special needs (Down Syndrome) children/people were way back when the general consensus was that they were "throwaways" and left to die in their cribs. Thank you so much for this.
Reply by Noelle on December 17, 2013 at 12:15 PM
I wonder as well about their integration in family life and then into the general population. After all, mothers have always been mothers. As for being "left to die in their cribs", according to the link posted, the physical features of DS weren't considered a sign of a disorder until 1866. The world was smaller then. They wouldn't have recognized any issues in development until later as it presented. Just an observation. Blessings to you and your beautiful girl.
Reply by Lucius M on December 14, 2013 at 10:46 AM
A good omen...Ethereal
Reply by Leticia Velasquez on December 14, 2013 at 11:33 PM
It is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which told me when I requested permission to reprint their photon in my book that I could not say that anyone in the painting had Down syndrome. Apparently they felt it was either inaccurate or insulting. Strange. But I have eyes and I agree, they have down syndrome.
Reply by Erna on December 16, 2013 at 9:44 AM
Hi Leticia, Yes it does seem clear to us that people with Down syndrome are depicted here, and at the same time I can understand the Met's hesitation to state it as fact without knowing the story behind the painting. I guess it remains a mystery since the painter is unknown. However, I was happy to note that they do cite the following as scholarly references to the painting: Andrew S. Levitas and Cheryl S. Reid. "An Angel with Down Syndrome in a Sixteenth Century Flemish Nativity Painting." American Journal of Medical Genetics 116 (2003), pp. 399–405, figs. 1–3 (overall and details), propose that two of the figures depicted (the angel next to Mary and an earthly admirer in the center behind the angels) show facial abnormalities associated with Down syndrome and mental retardation; suggests that the painting could be one of the earliest European representations of the syndrome. Tim Cornwell. "Challenging the Attitudes to Down's Syndrome through Art." March 19, 2009 To those of us who love someone with Down syndrome and have seen this painting, it will remain special no matter what! :-)
Reply by Annette on December 14, 2013 at 11:50 PM
we have an almost 3 year old granddaughter with Down syndrome, and she is the delight of our whole family....i would like to share the following with you, it was given to me by a friend who has 2 children with Down syndrome...and i believe very word of this: A SPECIAL CHILD A meeting was held quite far from earth, "it's time again for another birth", said the angel to the Lord above. "This special child will need much love. We must be careful where's she sent we want her life to be content. We must find the family who will do, a very special job for you. In many ways she won't adapt, and she'll be known as handicapped. Her progress may seem very slow, accomplishments she may not show. They will not realize right away, the leading part they're asked to play. But with this child sent from above, comes stronger faith and richer love. And soon they'll know the privilege given, in caring for this gift from heaven. Their precious charge so meek and mild, is heaven's very special child". Author unknown, but this was originally written for a gentleman with Down syndrome, who died at the age of 60 years, however I love it for it's simplicity and should be in every parent's home that has a child with Down syndrome.
Reply by Erna on December 16, 2013 at 9:47 AM
That is beautiful, Annette, thanks for sharing.
Reply by Ralph on December 15, 2013 at 3:10 AM
Or...the artist--like most in the Northern Renaissance--may not of had his proportions correct in painting realistic faces. Even the best artists of that day--especially in the North, away from the center of Renaissance art, Italy--weren't nearly as realistic in their portrayals as say, those from 100 years later. Lucas Cranach, for example never quite portrayed people with photographic precission (in spite of his very charming and mysterious style...), and it seems as if his contemporary Albrecht Durer alone created realistic portrayals--forseeing the later Dutch masters. I don't think plump faces of minor characters by early realist artists in paintings prove they were painting those with Downs syndrome...
Reply by Erna on December 16, 2013 at 9:59 AM
It is more the eyes, nose and mouth that seem to point to the portrayal of someone with Down syndrome; however, we will probably never know whether it was intentional or not.
Reply by Peter on December 16, 2013 at 12:20 AM
By going through the two pictures, it certain reveals the faces of the two persons who seems to be down with developmental disabilities and down syndrome.
Reply by Livia on December 16, 2013 at 3:06 PM
I want to buy this, but can find where to buy it, please help.
Reply by Erna on December 17, 2013 at 10:28 AM
Hi Livia, The places I have found are or If you search on their sites for "Adoration of the Christ Child, Jan Joest of Kalkar" it should come up, even though he is actually not the painter (since the painter is unknown). All the best!
Reply by Michael Ruskin on December 16, 2013 at 4:10 PM
Thank you very much for posting this. How fascinating. Those who today are considered unworthy by political mandate and many in the medical profession are shown greeting the Christ. The vulnerable recognise in the Infant vulnerability and he in them will recognise his flock. Amen.
Reply by Jeannie Allen on December 16, 2013 at 7:31 PM
I would love to have a copy of this for my Sunday School room. I have the God Squad, our special needs class. I also have a down syndrome grandchild, and she has held my heart in her hands for sixteen years.
Reply by Jeanette Davies on December 18, 2013 at 10:06 AM
Hi Jeannie, I love your post. How would one start a 'God squad', because in my experience parents with children with special needs tend to steer away from Sunday school because people do not understand disability. Not everyone of course I am sure there is good practice and inclusion out there.I have a 15 year old son with down's syndrome.
Reply by Downs Side Up on December 17, 2013 at 2:53 PM
I came across this painting last year. Simply beautiful.
Reply by joyce somers on January 06, 2014 at 1:02 PM
Thank you for sharing.I am very proud of my down syndrome grandson!!
Reply by Lisa on January 07, 2014 at 7:47 PM
How surprised was I when this gorgeous, framed picture showed up under my Christmas tree this year- a wonderful present from my husband! My 23-yr-old son (his stepson) has Down Syndrome and is the absolute light of our lives! We will be hanging this picture in a place of honor for all to see!
Reply by Erna on January 08, 2014 at 11:07 AM
Thanks for sharing that, Lisa. This painting certainly had a place of honor in our house this Christmas and my 4-year-old nephew and 2-year-old niece were fascinated by it. Their 31-year-old aunt has Down syndrome but so far they know her simply as an exciting and fun person to be around.
Reply by Toni on February 05, 2015 at 11:08 PM
Just about everyone in the painting looks as though they have Down syndrome. Many paintings are like this I have noticed. I doubt Down syndrome was treated in the past the way it is now. I know a lot of people who have simian hand lines and other physical traits of down syndrome but function normally in society. Not without their quirks of course. But the "turning off" of genes by the human body has been proven to happen as a normal occurrence. Furthermore you can have one trait and not the other. You can have small feet or normal feet, you can have eye folds or not. You can have the gene and no apparent symptoms. These are possible things, there are probably many people with genetic so called flaws all over the place and this has probably happened throughout history. I have a simian line. I have an IQ in the superior range. I have always been curious about this topic.