The intersection of art, medicine, and faith in the Catholic tradition has a lot to teach today, especially if you’re a doctor. “Catholic art has a long history of demonstrating the beauty of the human person, beauty both in its health as well as its disease,” Dr. Thomas Heyne, M.D. told CNA. “Catholic artists have been very effective observers and demonstrators of that dual beauty.” “In looking closely at artwork, we’re able to have a window into what disease looked like many centuries ago as well as how our patients still look today.”
Heyne, who works in the pediatrics department of Massachusetts General Hospital, spoke at a breakout session “Did Michelangelo have Gout?” at the Catholic Medical Association’s annual educational conference, held in Denver earlier this month. Reviewing historic artwork helps doctors review the presentations of forgotten or rare diseases, he said. It helps improve their observational skills, and remember how patients behaved when lacking simple treatments like pain-relieving ibuprofen.
Citing several studies on medical training, he said that medical examination of art can help make doctors better through honing their observation skills, tolerance for ambiguity, mindfulness, communication skills, and empathy. Heyne also contended that teaching medicine through art also advances a deeper appreciation for Catholicism’s role in both art and medicine.
“You’re taking a bunch of secular people and making them look at Catholic art half the time,” he said. “To me, this is a pretty helpful thing for the new evangelization.” His presentation drew on many studies and arguments from doctors and art scholars, including his own research.
Among his examples of diagnosing health conditions in art was Giovanni Lanfranco’s work from about 1625: “St. Luke healing the Dropsical Child.” It shows St. Luke taking the pulse of a child with a distended belly, as a woman looks on. A book of the ancient medical writer Hippocrates rests on a nearby table with an icon of a woman saint.
Heyne suggested that the child’s symptoms as painted by Lanfranco could be the earliest known depiction of congenital heart disease. At the same time, any interpreter must take into account the interplay between realism and stylistic convention. Despite the child’s stomach, the child appears to have a healthy musculature. Lanfranco tended to paint all children beautifully, Heyne explained.
Even the standard iconography of saints can show Catholic awareness of medical problems. St. Roch, a patron saint of plague victims, is often shown with the tell-tale bulba of plague.
In Istanbul’s Chora Church, a fourteenth century mosaic depicts Christ healing a multitude. One person depicted has crutches, another is blind, another appears to have rickets. The work also shows a sitting man with a bulge nearly the size of a basketball in his groin area. According to the doctor, this is likely a massive inguinal or scrotal hernia. “This artist put a giant scrotum on the top of a church. This is pre-Puritan,” said Heyne, interpreting the art as saying, “Jesus came to save everyone.” “I think this is remarkable: ‘No shame: come out and you will be healed’,” he said. “I think it is a remarkable testament to what the human body was back then.” The mosaic could be the first depiction of a hernia.
The art history of European Christianity shows diseases now associated only with the developing world. Other artworks show signs of longstanding diseases like leprosy, while others trace the arrival of diseases new to Christian Europe. A 1496 sketch from Albrecht Dürer shows a man with syphilis, just four years after the disease is believed to have spread to Europe from the New World.
Some figures in famous paintings show signs of finger deformities suggesting rheumatoid arthritis, like the hands of the nude women in Peter Paul Rubens’ 1639 painting The Three Graces.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa portrait shows the famous subject in great detail. The 25-year-old woman appears to show an accumulation of cholesterol under the skin in the hollow of her left eye. Her hand shows a fatty tissue tumor. She is known to have died at age 37. Heyne took these conditions together and asked whether Mona Lisa died of a cardiovascular event.
As for master artist Michelangelo, his training in anatomy helped give deeper artistic significance to his work. For instance, his statue Night from 1531, depicting a bare-breasted woman personifying Night, and perhaps death, appears to show signs of a breast tumor.
Heyne did criticize some interpretations of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. While some suggested the bulging of some figures’ eyes was intended to represent disease, he said it rather simply represented astonishment at the arrival of the apocalypse. Review of art also helps doctors understand how patients with particular diseases or health conditions were viewed throughout history.
There is the example of the seventeenth-century Spanish painter Diego Velazquez, who painted at least ten portraits of people with dwarfism. These show their “dignity and beauty,” and don’t depict them as “court buffoons,” Heyne said, suggesting this is another role for Christianity in art.