Early Graphic Illustration, Comic Strips and Disability

The history of printing goes back to the duplication of images by means of stamps in very early times. The use of round seals for rolling an impression into clay tablets goes back to early Mesopotamian civilization before 3000 BCE, they feature complex and beautiful images. In both China and Egypt, the use of small stamps for seals preceded the use of larger blocks. In China, India and Europe, printing on cloth certainly preceded printing on paper or papyrus. The process is essentially the same: in Europe special presentation impressions of prints were often printed on silk until the 17th century. The development of printing has made it possible for books, newspapers, magazines, and other reading materials to be produced in great numbers, and it plays an important role in promoting literacy and in its earlier form reinforcing religious belief and moral codes.

Printing methods where used to reproduce images and made these much more widely available. As the vast majority could not read graphic illustration using a variety of printing methods replaced manuscript hand illustrations that had been limited to monasteries and royal palaces. Artists could reproduce their work and make cultural, social and political comments. Disability features in these prints as moral tales, Bible stories and political and social comment. Disabled people show as pitiable and pathetic, triumphing over tragedy, figures of fun, a burden, penitent sinners, evil, powerless, immoral, but never as just ordinary living their lives as most people did at these times.


An early engraving in Europe is Martin Schugauer (1450-1491) in his take on St Martin of Tour. A Roman Centurion who cut his cloak to give to a disabled beggar to keep him warm. He was put to death by the Roman Army and so became a Saint. The print evokes attitudes of pity and charity. The disabled person is seen as pathetic.


Early illustrations were to show the seven deadly sins or 10 commandments. A good example is the title page of -Purgatory and the lament of Roman courtesans 1530

Title page Maestro Andreas Purgatory and lament of Roman coutyesans 1530 BM

The visual language used then moved on to narrative –telling a story in pictures usually having a moral.

An Italian transformation pint c.1600, the Dangers of love is a strong message to steer clear away from love or you will contract disease and disability and end up being taken to the mad house. This  moral tale was conveniently folded so you could keep it about your person and so when tempted take it out to refresh your resolve. Interestingly one of the only copies is in the Queen’s print collection at Windsor.



Similar story is oft repeated where disability is the reward for sin or immoral behaviour

Teunissen Rise fall of a high flying youth 1535


Teunissen Rise fall of a high flying youth 1535 where he acquires an impairment as his just deserts only to become more modest and recovers. The same German print maker shows what happens to a man who misuses his property.

Teunissen 1535 Misuse of property


A wonderful true story of an 18 year old crippled girl at Einsiedeln 1580 Swiss

The wonderful story of an 18 year old crippled girl at Einsedeln April 9th 1580 . A Miracle cure. The girl  lame from birth, is determined against all reason and advice to crawl alone many miles to the famous pilgramage  Centre of Einsieldeln in Switzerland. She crouches by the river screaming until 2. She is ferried across. She crawls on, to  the amazement of passers-by, until she meats a noble bearded man in a white gown, who marks her on the knee. 3. Healed she thanks her Benefactor, who 4. Sends her on her way. She disappears into the distance towards the shrine, still looking over her shoulder to the scene of the miraculous cure. Unknown Swiss or German Artist .



Guiseppi Maria Mitelli a century later gives us a more documentary allegory of man’s life.. 1706 You who love and esteem deceitful world, consider its promises, fruits and trickery. 1. At birth, man groans under the oppression of swaddling clothes. 2. Then, as a child, he is subject to the scourge of others. 3. As a young man, he is tyrannized by love. 4. As a grown man he labours to earn a living. 5. He is threatened and scolded by a superior. 6. There is no end to the lawsuits against him. 7. Creditors imprison him. 8.No one helps him when he is reduced to beggary. 9. Once again unjustly attacked. 10. He reaches old age full of disease. 11. He lies in painful illness and prolonged sorrow. 12. Finally he is reduced to a miserable corpse.

In another more moralistic print Mitelli gives us the unhappy Life of a prostitute divided into the twelve months of the year. Again she ends up disabled with a crutch.

Mitelli The Unhappy life of a prostitute 1691


Mitelli was kean on portraying disabled people using them to put across a moral message.Giuseppe Maria Mitelli (1634–1718) was an Italian engraver and painter of the Baroque period. He was the son of the prominent quadratura painter Agostino Mitelli. The younger Mitelli was best known for his prolific engravings, in a great variety of subjects, including scenes from grand epics to mundane page boards for games of chance using dice, Tarot cards, and an Iconophor with anthropomorphized alphabets.[1] He also engraved genre subjects, allegories, moralistic scenes, but even some bizarre cartoons that could be interpreted as sometimes provocatively subversive, or presciently revolutionary, and sometimes imaginatively bizarre.[2] He often depicted dwarfs engaged in buffoonery or satirical depictions of aphorisms, which recalls the Bambocciate di nani or arte pigmeo of genre painter Faustino Bocchi (1659–1742).

Pilgrim, Tarrot Card and Discordant Musicians.



1678 Guiseppi Mitelli Proverb FiguratiC17th Tarot Card MitelliDiscordant Musicians Mitelli


Mitelli A_life-class_in_a_grotesque_academy_of_artists;_a_hunchback_Wellcome_V0048969

An Academy of Dwarf Painters drawing a hunchback.


This last is reminiscent of the work of  Jaques Callot 1592 in Nancy ; † March 1635  .

L’Estropié a la Béquille et a La Jambe de Bois (The Cripple with a Crutch and a Wooden Leg), from Varie Figure Gobbi Jaques Callot 1616

DP818577L'Estropié a la Béquille et a La Jambe de Bois (The Cripple with a Crutch and a Wooden Leg), from Varie Figure Gobbi Jaques Callot 1616

Le Joueur de Flageolet (The Flageolet Player), from Varie Figure Gobbi, 1616-20 Jaques Callot NYM

DP818534Le Joueur de Flageolet (The Flageolet Player), from Varie Figure Gobbi, 1616-20 Jaques Callot NYM


As the Eighteen Century began. Disability was used as a metaphor for political or national weakness.

Romeyn de Hooghe(1701) Cartoon shows Louis XIV ( The Sun God who built Versailles and attacked the Protestant Dutch) as a crippled Apollo,

driven by Mme de Maintenon(his mistress) in a broken chariot over the terrestial globe, while the Dutch lion springs forward to tear down the horse.

Romeyn de Hooghe 1701 Louise XIV


Hogarth used disability as a sign of moral weakness as exemplified by the explaination by Simon Jarrett on this website.

Hogarth Plate 6 Industry and Idleness Billy in the Bowl and band

As did Cruikshank in many prints such as the the History of John Bull’s (Britain) warlike expedition (1793) or in John Bull’s Progress or

Admiral on crutches , being a comment on the Navy’s poor performance.




John Bull Criukshank 1793


gillray_johnbull progress 1793


Admiral on crutches


Similarly Rowlandson lampooned the fashionable Spa Town of Bath in as full of useless overweight and disabled aristocrats in Bath Races 1898 and 1910

bath_races-400rowlandson_the-bath-races-plate-12-from-comforts-of-bath-1798Bath Races Rowlandson 1810

In compiling this page great reliance was placed upon “The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and ‘Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to c.1825” by David Kunzle , Berkley, California; University of California Press 1973


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