The Portrait of a Sixteenth-Century Disabled Man

By Volker Schönwiese

Gazes at women and men with disabilities from the early modern times up until today – how can they be interpreted scientifically and artistically? A painting from an unknown disabled man from the 16th century that has not been taken notice of until then was the starting point of a participatory and transdisciplinary project in 2005/2006. The portrait is part of the “Kunst- und Wunderkammer” (Cabinet of Arts and Wonders, founded by Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria, Region of the Tyrol [1529-1595]) at Ambras Castle near the city of Innsbruck/ Austria. The Institute of Educational Sciences at the University of Innsbruck, the Museum of Fine Arts (“Kunsthistorisches Museum”) in Vienna with its collection at Ambras Castle and the Centre for Independent Living in Innsbruck were the project partners of this research project. The project´s main goals were the creation and organisation of an exhibition at Ambras Castle and the publication of a scientific anthology with collected articles. Both goals were achieved in cooperation with a reference group of women and men with disabilities. Additionally, a television documentary was created. The participatory approach of the project should finally lead to recommendations for working with reference groups as a way of transdisciplinary participation.

During the duration of the project, two other historical paintings were found that are also significant for the analysis of the cultural representation of disability: a leaflet from 1620 showing Wolfgang Gschaidter, a carpenter with a disability [1] and a small picture from 1578, showing Elizabeth, a woman with a learning disability [2].

Portrait of a Sixteenth-Century Disabled Man
Portrait of a Sixteenth-Century Disabled Man
The painting of the naked man lying on his stomach is one of the few preserved paintings of that time showing a person with a disability. As there are only a few clothes left, it is difficult to determine the man’s social status. The ruff he is wearing is an item that was developed in Spanish fashion. At the end of the 16th-century it used to be an accessory of courtly fashion, but soon it became a piece of clothing worn by officials as well. The red cap was worn by young princes, scholars, artists and fools alike. The picture can be subdivided into two separate parts: the “dressed” head shown in the upright position with a box in the background forms the contrast to the “naked” body lying on the table. The sage, vivid look is in contradiction to the immovability and powerlessness of the body. In addition, the self-confidence expressed in his look and peculiar smile, does not harmonize with the helpless position of his body. But it is exactly this ambiguity which leads to the impressive charm and explanatory power of the painting today. 

An inventory of the “Kunst- und Wunderkammer” drawn up for the first time in 1621 offers information on this portrait collection. Due to the inventory and the traces found on the painting it could be verified that the body of the disabled man had been covered by a sheet of red paper right from the very start. If a patron wished to see more, he or she could lift it and take a direct look at the naked body. Thus this portrait represents a historical document that has no comparable counterpart. It brings into sharp focus the deeply ambivalent gaze of the modern age at disabled persons, a gaze located between curiosity, fright, and detachment.

Four dimensions of interpretation:
  • one possible meaning results from the context of the self-representation of power over “court jesters” and “natural fools” – dimension of power and hegemony;
  • another one is to be searched in the context of the era of the Counter Reformation and the Ottoman Wars, in specific religious motives—certainly in the presentation of God’s power as the creator of nature. But perhaps also in the theme of the “Imitation of Christ,” the deformed and, according to religious projections, “suffering” body of the disabled man possibly serving as a trigger for special associations – dimension of symbolic history and politics;
  • a third motive could be the emerging interest in systematic and anatomic knowledge – dimension of history of knowledge, medicine and cabinets of wonders;
  • a forth meaning is the area of reflection or recognition of individuality and personality, the (unknown) personal history of the man with disability and the personal expression, in this case the smile.
As the key topic of the project was the cultural representation of disability, the project drafted a research design that intended to emphasize and to strengthen the view of women and men with disabilities within the whole research process. A reference group advised the researchers and commented on their activities. It is unusual that a project with a rather theoretical and historical topic includes the approach of Participatory Action Research (PAR). The goals were implemented by working together on a dictionary on the Painting of a Disabled Man. The project group cooperatively wrote a text with more than 80 keywords. Each researcher/participant contributed to it; some wrote just one or two keywords, others wrote more. Everyone described keywords that he or she found important in regard to the historical painting. They are in alphabetical order with references to other keywords as it is usual for dictionaries. Here you find a list of selected keywords: cover, ambivalence, fear, accessibility, disability studies, legs, arms, portrait, gaze general, gaze on the painting of the disabled man from a women`s perspective, gaze on the painting of the disabled man from a men´s perspective, curious gaze, medical gaze, pitiful gaze, emancipated gaze, DanceAbility, solitude, cabinet of wonders, curiosity, relationship, power, people with learning disabilities. The dictionary is a major part of the accompanying publication of the exhibition.

Research team
Research team

From the point of view of today’s emancipation movement of persons with disabilities (and their friends), it can certainly be considered an act of liberation that the portrait of the sixteenth-century man has been brought out of disregard, that he is acknowledged to have a history and perceptible importance, and that the related ambivalences can be coped with.

More Information

Recommended Citation
Volker Schönwiese (2016): The Portrait of a Sixteenth-Century Disabled Man. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 8.

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