The Painting of a Disabled Man.

Study on the representation of disability and its relevance for today

Themenbereiche: Disability Studies
Textsorte: Vortrag
Releaseinfo: 8th Research Conference of the Nordic Network on Disability Research in Oslo, 14th - 16th April 2005, Presentation
Copyright: © Volker Schönwiese 2005

The Painting of a Disabled Man.

Study on the representation of disability and its relevance for today

I would like to present a research project[1], which developed from the painting of a disabled man from the second half of the 16th century. So far this picture has been neglected in art or science studies. It is hanging in the Chamber of Art and Curiosities ("Kunst- und Wunderkammer") of Ambras Castle near Innsbruck, a part of the Art History Museum of Vienna. Archduke Ferdinand II (1529-1595) was the founder of the Chamber of Art and Curiosities. The project is concerned with the practical and academic importance of understanding such representations of disability in the course of history until the present. Today I would like to concentrate on this painting of the 16th century. Petra Flieger will report on the participatory approach of the project in the next presentation. This painting shows a disabled man lying on his stomach on a dark green cloth on a table. The limp, deformed body is painted realistically. The background is kept in dark colours. The man is looking straight at the beholder; his facial expression is something between sceptical and derisive. He is wearing a hat and a ruff. Behind his head is a small decorated casket. Entries in the archive of the Chamber of Art and Curiosities and traces on the picture itself prove that the torso of the disabled man was covered with red paper. If the beholder wanted to see more, he could lift it and see the naked body.

So far it has not been determined who is represented or who painted the picture. The question arises why this disabled man was so important that he was painted for the Chamber of Art and Curiosities. One possible answer is that he was considered, in some form or other, to be one of the "natural jesters" who were included in the courtly self-representations. Giants, midgets and hair-men were considered curiosities of nature. Representations of such human curiosities usually hung in the same gallery with the portraits of the nobility. For Archduke Ferdinand it was thus possible to pose as ruler over the world of curiosities.

One can assume that the painting has something to do with the progress of medicine in the 16th century. Among the collectors for Ferdinand II 's curiosity chamber were doctors and there was a lively exchange between the various courts. There is no direct indication of any medical interest in including the picture in the collection. The body's nakedness and the detailed representation of the disabled man, for whom there is no contemporary model, point to a connection with the progress of medical knowledge. In the 16th century many doctors at universities were concerned with opening up the body for analysis. It was not primarily to explain but to dissect, examine and describe in order to provide a cartography of the body. An anatomical investigation in sections started with looking first at the skeleton and then moving outwards. The function of each part of the body, a taxonomy of the physique and a reconstruction of its mechanical movements could thus be recorded. Man became describable as a machine, to be repeatedly re-constructed. About one hundred years after the assumed date of painting the disabled man the French philosopher René Descartes developed a basic formula for man: body = machine, animal = body = machine, man = body = machine + mind/soul. Already in the 16th century the body was considered a machine or a clockwork. By dissecting and establishing a distance it was possible to see man as a mechanical machine. The picture of the disabled man could also be seen as evidence of a new approach to the separation of body and soul. The man is exposed to an isolated view of his body; a separation of head and torso is discernible: The head with hat and ruff gives the person history and status. The body is separated from it and a realistic view of the deformation is presented with observing distance. The purpose of the painting however cannot only be the creation of an isolated record. It is a question of complying with the general classification of the Chamber of Art and Curiosities and the presentation for an elitist public connected with it. The prerequisites for the scientific and pedagogical realisation of a classification are thus established. A connection can be made with the public sectors of the 16th century, which include research and teaching. The Chamber of Art and Curiosities only acquired a educational function at the end of the 17th century. An example of this is the Art and Natural History Collection founded in 1698 by August Hermann Franke in Halle on the Saale, Germany, established for schools and the lower strata of society under the influence of pietism.

The first indications of an explanation of the identity of the disabled man in the Chamber of Art and Curiosities arose when leaflets of the 16th and 17th centuries were examined within the project.

One leaflet, dated 1620 and published in Innsbruck, portrays a carpenter lying in bed. The text below says his name was Wolfgang Gschait. The leaflet describes very precisely how, after suffering excruciating pains in his left arm and back, the carpenter was completely paralysed. In the subsequent 15 years he could move nothing but his eyes and tongue. Readers were asked to give alms to the "poor cripple" and to pray for him in the nearby church ("Dreiheiligen"). Wolfgang Gschait is described as suffering all over his body; the posture is like Christ's after having been taken from the Cross. Disability was generally termed "imitatio Christi" and was used to exhort humility. The casket in the painting of the disabled man hanging in the Chamber of Art and Curiosities could be important as an attribute if the man depicted is in fact Wolfgang Gschait. However, the body and the physiognomy in the two portrayals are very different. Thus there is the interesting possibility that the same person is represented but that the symbols used are totally different. The actual person recedes behind its use as symbol or object. The counter-reformation religious appeal to Innsbruck's inhabitants and the modern scientific approach create two completely different images of disability side by side. It is the diversity in the pictures that is significant and not the concurrence of identity with the person in the representations.

Disability as it is understood today is a phenomenon that can only be connected with social and individual constructions and reconstructions. The bearers and mediators of these re-constructions are:

  • historical images

  • scientifically created taxonomic images

  • images conveyed by individual socialisation

  • images of disability produced or reinforced by the media

For disabled persons today this painting of the 16th century is not historical especially in view of the independent living movement. The look goes through those constructions, is an ascertaining gaze at oneself, at the conditions of one's own socialisation and biography. The question of the separation of body and soul is still very much alive in many of the efforts made at rehabilitation. Splitting and separating in connection with structural power are characteristic features of special education. Imparted through therapy it is a significant background for the socialising for disabled people today. This raises spontaneous questions: Did the man of the 16th century experience the same? Was he depicted as a personality or a subject? Or was he an object and thus completely uninteresting as a human being, something presented at a medical lecture or in a medical handbook? These questions could be important stimuli for the significance of this painting for today. As a product of social attributes with self-fulfilling traits disability has a social function. René Girard, for example, assumes that there is a historical, overlapping cultural pattern of collective violence in the sense of creating a scapegoat. Crises can be the initiators of widespread collective persecution. The loss of social feeling and the decline of those rules that define cultural order and "differences" are the result there are no longer any distinctions. Social crises like war, political power struggles and changes, economic collapses have again and again been settled in society by persecuting the scapegoat Jew, the foreigner, the "witch", the "crippled person", the socially conspicuous person. The persecution of disabled people in connection with the burning of witches, at its peak in the 17th century, is also an example of this. Beyond these persecutions the ordinary social function of disability is a projection of existentially and socially produced fears. Problems which all people fear can be averted and coped with by using the disabled persons: accidents, illnesses, poverty, death. The fears which arise from looking at disabled people are fostered in this way. The premise is a lack of knowledge about the way the disabled people see themselves; a disabled person is, in the widest sense of the word, isolated. Today this can be seen in the lack of integration into everyday life, in kindergarten, in school, at work and in living. Such peculiarities are signs of a loss of distinctions, which can lead to rationally calculated destruction in times of crisis, as for example during national socialism. There has been no historical research which adequately describes in documents the ambivalence of the attitude towards disability. Of course, for long historical periods, disabled people must also have been accepted under the same (bad) conditions as other members of society. The history of the persecution of disabled people is very present for those who have taken a look at the history of disability. However, investigating the history of disability using Michel Foucault's discourse analysis has not as yet been done enough. It could produce the methodology for creating disability. The painting of the disabled man in the Chamber of Art and Curiosities of Ambras Castle can perhaps be seen as a document of historical ambivalence. The disabled man was clearly adequately taken care of and one can assume that he had a certain social position. At the same time he is exposed to an alarmed and distanced gaze, which makes him both an object of social projection and of scientific classification. This is mirrored again in the ambivalent relationship over the centuries of the owners, trustees and custodians of the Chamber of Art and Curiosities. Again and again these people raised the question whether the public should be confronted with such pictures. The fact that this painting has so far been ignored by experts is in itself significant in this connection. From the perspective of the disabled people (and their allies) and the movement toward emancipation, it can be seen as an act of liberation to take a closer look at the man of the 16th century. It is a question of not hiding him any longer, of conceding him a history and a perceived scientific importance, of accepting the ambivalence.


Girard, René: Ausstoßung und Verfolgung. Eine historische Theorie des Sündenbocks. Frankfurt/ Main: Fischer Verlag, 1992

Kathan, Bernhard: Das Elend der ärztlichen Kunst. Eine andere Geschichte der Medizin. Wien: Döcker, 1999

Mürner, Christian: Kultur- und Mediengeschichte behinderter Menschen. Weinheim: Beltz Verlag, 2003

Rauch, Margot: Monster und Mirakel. Wunderbares in der Kunstkammer von Schloss Ambras. Innsbruck: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Sammlung Schloss Ambras, 2003

Schönwiese, Volker / Mürner, Christian: Das Bildnis eines behinderten Mannes. Kulturgeschichtliche Studie zu Behinderung und ihre Aktualität. In: Psychologie & Gesellschaftskritik, Nr. 1/ 05 (in print).


Volker Schönwiese: The Painting of a Disabled Man.

8th Research Conference of the Nordic Network on Disability Research in Oslo, 14th - 16th April 2005, Presentation.

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[1] The project at the Department of Education of the University of Innsbruck is financed by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Science and Culture. The researchers who work on this project are: Petra Flieger, Christian Mürner, Ulrike Pfeifenberger, Margot Rauch, Volker Schönwiese (project manager; contact:

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