My Disability image group comprises 23 medieval manuscript illustrations, woodcuts, wall paintings, and mosaics featuring people with disabilities who are either in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth or the Prophet Muhammad. The remaining three images are contemporary photographs of disabled youths: a deaf boy in Turkey, a blind girl in Pakistan, and a girl with visual impairment in Lebanon. Singly, all of these images impress the viewer with their uniqueness and for featuring disabled bodies in art, but together, these images begin to tell complex stories about the function of disability in Islamic and Christian contexts.
In all but one of the medieval Christian images, Jesus is healing someone of an affliction, be it of blindness, leprosy, paralysis, lameness, deafness, or muteness; the lone exception shows Jesus blinding an accuser (Bodleian Douce 237). In quite stark terms, disability figures as divine punishment or as a fault that needs repair. Strikingly, the association of disability with cure or punishment is absent from the assembled samples of Islamic art. In one 16th century manuscript illustration, an elderly male dwarf sits at the base of the pulpit while the Prophet Muhammad delivers a sermon (MMA 55.121.40), and in another painting composed in the same period, a blind man is condemning Muhammad (CBL inv. 419). Although the sample size is small, it encourages comparisons between Christianity's final messenger (Jesus) and Islam's final messenger-prophet (Muhammad) and their respective interactions with people with disabilities. Do historical texts support the visual thesis that medieval Christian artists emphasized disability as problematic, whereas Muslim artists emphasized the social integration and individual agency of disabled people? Though the three photographs are from a different time period and cannot be used in studies of medieval disability, these important representations of disability raise new questions of the medieval images, such as the significance of the subjects' ages and genders.
ARTstor brilliantly encourages users to draw complex connections between discrete archives, particularly through the process of creating image galleries. In my own case, I was so intrigued by the dwarf painting that I contacted Annick Desroches, coordinator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Islamic collections, to schedule a viewing of the painting. We met in her offices in January 2010 and the visit was transformative. I learned that the verso of the manuscript folio contains Ottoman text, including a poem about bodies, the first line of which reads: "The fruit of a tree rejoices because a tree is the light of a garden." I also perused the card catalog, the full contents of which do not appear on the Museum's website or on ARTstor. To my astonishment, the Museum owns a 15th century Egyptian ink sketch of male amputees (MMA 1975.360), providing even more crucial information about disability in medieval Islamic contexts and an illustration for my forthcoming article on disjointed bodies.
My research on medieval Egypt and Syria has deepened through attention to narrative and visual depictions of disability and ARTstor has facilitated new ways to engage with virtual and physical archives.
Image caption: Ottoman | Leaf from Maqtal-i al-i Rasul, end of 16th century | This image was provided by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Contact information: Photograph and Slide Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028, (212) 396-5050 (fax)