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Forgotten Portraits


An anonymous Dutch master of the 1500s included two Down syndrome people in his magnificent Nativity scene.

down2 In the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York there is an unusual painting: "The Adoration of the Christ Child" by a follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar.  For this Nativity scene includes two figures which suggest their models had Down's syndrome.  To anyone who recognises the distinctive physiognomy caused by Down's the likeness is unmistakable.

These figures, a small angel next to Mary and a shepherd standing behind, seem startling because their presence is so rare.  We don't know if the artist used them simply because they resembled members of his own family or because his artistic vision encompassed a richly inclusive understanding of humanity.  For me the rapt and humble adoration scene is suffused with an extra dimension of kindliness and pity. 


Yet how natural and appropriate the inclusion seems!  The small angel and the adult shepherd bring their own touching simplicity of worship to the tableau.  "Unless ye become as little children ye cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven" Jesus reminds us.  And we need reminding.  In Western society today, increasingly sophisticated tests are employed to detect preborn babies who have Down's syndrome; over 90 percent are then aborted.

They are brutally denied the chance to live and to experience the joy and sadness of life — or to participate in the greatest act human beings can make: to worship the Christ Child in his crib.  Indeed, perhaps his fragility and vulnerability speaks more eloquently to the hearts of the two individuals in the painting because their own stigmata are inscribed so indelibly on their faces?

Why do I particularly embrace the tender vision of this painting?  Because I too have a child with Down's syndrome.


The Adoration of the Christ Child. Artist: Follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar (Netherlandish, active ca. 1515) 




Catherine Morrogh. "Forgotten portraits." Mercatornet (February 11, 2016).

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The Author

Catherine Morrogh writes from the UK.

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