Representing health

How might doctors hep us understand works of art more fully? This article from The Wall Street Journal (1/2/15) offers important insight on how doctors are looking at works of art and suggesting what health problems adults and children suffered in earlier generations, even hundreds of years ago. This allows art historians to more fully understand a time period. Just as importantly, looking at art allows young medical students to study the history of illnesses and their treatments. While artists do not depict exactly what is front of them, considering how an artist might have represented an illness is an important question to raise.

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Above: Raphael, The School of Athens, det., Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican, 1509. Is there a problem with Heraclitus’s knee? Read the article and see additional images.

2 thoughts on “Representing health

  1. Emily MacIndoe

    It is so interesting to see how two disciplines as different as art and medicine can fit together. During the Renaissance, artists developed techniques to depict buildings, space, and even the human figure more accurately. It is truly impressive that their paintings were so realistic that doctors can look at them today, hundreds of years later, and almost be able to diagnose medical conditions. By including medical conditions in their paintings, such as Heraclitus’s swollen knee in “The School of Athens” and the young woman with down syndrome in “A Family Group,” the artists seem to be expressing that health troubles are simply a part of human nature and that the work of art would be incomplete if they were not portrayed. Art historians and medical professionals should remain open to each other’s perspectives to help us better understand what artists actually intended to depict.

  2. Brittany Johnson

    I would not be surprised at all to find that this work contained a man with health problems considering the Renaissance’s focus on reality. Especially in the case of physical ailments, I full-heartedly believe that many artists would’ve been interested in depicting these people.


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