Andrea Mantegna looked at his disabled child and saw the image of God

To read on The New Atlantis website:

At Home with Down Syndrome

Caitrin Nicol Keiper 2008


In storage at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is the secret to what one professor calls “the first Down Syndrome Association in the history of the world.” In 1982, Dr. Brian Stratford, a specialist in developmental disabilities at the University of Nottingham, suggested in the journal Maternal and Child Health that the Italian Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna used a little boy with Down syndrome as the model for his Christ child. Stratford made a “clear characteristic diagnosis” of the baby based on his distinctive facial features and the shape of his hands and toes. The curator at the MFA dismissed this theory, attributing the work to an unknown, less technically astute follower of Mantegna, and calling the resemblance to a child with Down syndrome accidental. In the meantime, however, Stratford heard from a history professor in Rome. The Gonzaga family of Mantua, Mantegna’s sponsor, had a boy with an unidentified “sickness,” she said, and one of the artist’s own fourteen children shared this condition — a not insignificant factor in Ludovico Gonzaga’s choice of Andrea Mantegna as his court painter. Gonzaga and Mantegna appreciated the humanity of these children whom some might have preferred to hide away or let die, and that shared sensitivity gave them a “sense of purpose” with respect to disability which Stratford regrets has been all but forgotten by our society: “Perhaps Mantegna saw in this child something beyond the deficiencies which now so occupy our attention and perhaps then, the qualities of love, forgiveness, gentleness, and innocence were more readily recognized. Maybe Mantegna saw these qualities as more representative of Christ than others we now regard so highly.” (…)

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