Down Syndrome in Art Forms Throughout the Ages

Down Syndrome in Art Forms Throughout the Ages

Art is a very galvanizing force that is often used to represent and preserve a piece of society. It is often examined and analyzed by future historians in centuries to come. An art piece used to encompass the various beliefs and outlooks during the era in which it was created. Throughout the centuries, mental illness have been depicted in a various forms of art, whether in music, the media, or paintings. Down Syndrome is no exception. Even before the official coining of its current name in the early nineteenth century, Down Syndrome has been depicted in different pieces of arts for centuries (Starbuck, 2011 ).  

According to John. M. Starbuck, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, there are many art forms in history that could possibly be depictions of individuals with Down Syndrome in historical cultures.  He believes there is strong evidence that two individuals in the painting The Adoration of the Christ Child (circa 1515 A.D.) were shown to have Down Syndrome.  One individual was drawn with angel wings and the other was an “earthly admirer” (Starbuck, 2011).  They were portrayed with similar facial compositions exhibited by people with Down Syndrome. They had  “flattened midface, epicanthic folds, upslanted palpebral fissures, small and upturned nasal tip, downward curving mouth corners, and short fingers with a widely spaced and curving small finger (Levitas and Reid, 2003)”.  These description are direct features scientists have identified as distinct to those with Down Syndrome. There are two versions of this painting, one in the nighttime and the other in the daytime. Each version had similar individual’s depicted, one with an angelic disposition and the other as a mortal bystander.    

Levitas and Reid, who studied the qualitative facial analysis of individuals in paintings to confirm or deny the possibility of those individual’s as being depicted with Down Syndrome. They concluded, after analyzing and examining the two individuals in the painting, that both individuals may have had Down Syndrome. They speculated that there were three possible reasons why one of the individuals in the painting who may have had Down Syndrome was drawn with such an angelic disposition. The reasons were: 1) the artists may have had warm feelings towards people with Down Syndrome, 2) the artists was depicting people with disabilities for a symbolic purpose such as depicting those with mental illnesses as signs of comedy or evil (Starbuck, 2011), and 3) physical signs of Down Syndrome were not recognized as a disorder at the time of the painting (Levitas and Reid, 2003).

The portrayals of those with disabilities or mental illnesses ranged from symbols of evil and fear to comedy and jest. Some people with disabilities were portrayed as a symbol of evil (Levitas and Reid, 2003). This could be perhaps be indicative of the intrinsic human tendency to fear the unknown. Others depicted those with disabilities as a symbol of comedy (Levitas and Reid, 2003), which could be evidence of a human propensity to judge and ridicule those who are different.

In today’s society, the knowledge of Down Syndrome has spread, with the advent of increased research and awareness. Media portrayals now depict those with Down Syndrome less as a symbol of evil or comedy but more as an exaggerated caricature of their syndrome.  For example, the television reality show, known as the A&E series “Born This Way” features everyday people with Down Syndrome and the lives they live. However, such shows, especially “Born This Way” is criticized for portraying the lives of people with Down Syndrome as  “an overly rosy look at life for adults with Down Syndrome” (Vila, 2016). Such representations of Down Syndrome is quite popular in the media nowadays (Vila, 2016) however it is a step forward in the right direction compared to portrayal of mental illnesses and disabilities as either a joke or a sin. Therefore, the depiction of Down Syndrome in art right now is not ideal, but it has improved over the centuries.   

In the future, with more advancement in science and research, the art representing those who differ from the typically developing person can finally morph into accurate depictions of those with any mental disorder or disability, not just Down Syndrome.  It is crucial to respect and understand people with mental illnesses as individuals and not as a product of their disorder.


Levitas, A. S., & Reid, C. S. (2003, February 01). An angel with Down Syndrome in a sixteenth

century Flemish Nativity painting. Retrieved October 19, 2018, from

Starbuck, J. M. (2011). On the Antiquity of Trisomy 21: Moving Towards a Quantitative

Diagnosis of Down Syndrome in Historic Material Culture. Journal of Contemporary

Anthropology,2(1). Retrieved October 19, 2018, from

Vila, V. (2016, January 12). Down Syndrome on TV: Conversations About “Born This Way”.

Retrieved October 24, 2018, from

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