fb-pixel Skip to main content
A magnified detail of a stipple engraving of Matthias Buchinger’s self-portrait. Buchinger was born in the 17th century without hands or feet.
A magnified detail of a stipple engraving of Matthias Buchinger’s self-portrait. Buchinger was born in the 17th century without hands or feet. handout

When my granddaughter Lucy, who has Down syndrome, was born almost 13 years ago, only my daughter’s friend, Kerry, without missing a beat, congratulated us.

Everyone else, including me, was full of sorrow and sighs.

This was before the Internet began spreading good news about people with Down syndrome, before fashion magazines began hiring models with Down syndrome, before there was a reality show starring young adults with Down syndrome (“Born This Way,” A&E).

Some things you never forget. “She won’t.” “She can’t.” “She isn’t.” “She’ll never.” “People with Down syndrome are more prone to . . . ” And there was a long list: infection, heart defects, leukemia, hearing loss, vision loss, Alzheimer’s.

Advertisement



Everything was negative. And this attitude — not of friends and family who buoyed us but of the experts and of books we were given — made us afraid. What’s going to happen next? Here was this beautiful new human being. But we were too worried to bask in her.

Last week I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and there was an exhibit of micrography (tiny, you need a microscope to read it) calligraphy written by a man born in 1674 who had no hands or feet or thighs.

I’d never heard of Matthias Buchinger, who grew to only 2 feet 5 inches. I’d never seen his perfect writing, his intricate drawings, his carved, wooden miniatures inserted, like a ship, into a bottle — works of art by a man who had no hands. And all I could think, looking at his work and reading about his life, was I wish someone had told us about Matthias Buchinger when Lucy was born.

Every time a woman gives birth to a baby who isn’t quite perfect — spinal bifida, cerebral palsy, blind, deaf, cleft palate, club feet, an extra chromosome — the talk revolves around all this child will never do. I wish that someone would tell these very frightened mothers and fathers about this amazing artist, musician, magician, dancer, husband to four wives (only the last outlived him), father of 14, who traveled Europe and performed for kings, who lived a life that mattered and continues to matter today, 276 years after his death.

Advertisement



In his elegant new book, “Matthias Buchinger: ‘The Greatest German Living,” Ricky Jay, a magician, actor, and writer, explores Buchinger’s life through written testimony, through stories and memories, as well as through the beautifully rendered images of Buchinger’s intricate work. (In the locks of a subject’s hair, Buchinger, in miniature letters, would often write out psalms and prayers. In his self-portrait, he inscribed in the curls of his own hair seven biblical psalms, plus the Lord’s Prayer, which, even with a magnifying glass, are difficult to see.)

His microscopic lettering could literally fit on the head of a needle.

How did he do this without hands? How did he play the oboe, the flute, the bagpipe, dulcimer, trumpet, guitar, and drums? How did he deal cards and roll dice and astound with magic tricks, making things appear and disappear, stunning audiences across Europe? How did he carve tiny pieces of wood, thread needles, shoot guns, and bowl with such control that one eyewitness wrote that he struck “designated pins while passing the ball through a maze of lit candles.”

Advertisement



And how did Matthias Buchinger dance when he had no legs?

He figured out a way. Buchinger was an inventor, a master of adaptation, reconfiguring the instruments he played, reinventing the quills he wrote with, changing, modifying, reshaping everything he touched to make these things work for him.

He performed for King Louis XV of France.

He performed for King George I of England.

I imagine his mother wept when he was born. Matthias was her ninth child. Her eighth son. His parents were “distressed at his unnatural form” and “concealed him as much as possible,” a nephew of a friend of Buchinger’s told the Dublin Penny Journal in 1833. I imagined his parents feared for his future. Who wouldn’t?

And yet, look at the life he lived. And look at his work living still, three centuries after his death.

He had seven able-bodied brothers. Their work is not in a museum.

He can’t. She won’t. These words are toxic.

He can. She will. Matthias Buchinger, born without hands and feet and thighs, proves possibility.


Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at bevbeckham@gmail.com.