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The holiness of sick people: A strong idea in the art of European Renaissance

Published:April 26, 2016DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejim.2016.04.013
      In the western and eastern civilization, rudimental hospitals were built since the antiquity [
      • Artusi l.
      Antica Ospitalità.
      ]. There has been always a close relationship between religion and medicine. In Greece, sick people visited the Temples of Apollo and Asclepius since the X century BC, asking the Gods to heal their disease. Waiting for the miracle to happen, the patients stayed in the Temple, and the employers of the Temple took care of them, providing a bed, food, herbal medicines, and treating open wounds. Hyppocrates, considered the father of modern medicine, practiced in the Temple of Kos, sacred to the God of medicine Asclepius [
      • Sterpetti A.V.
      • DeToma G.
      • De Cesare A.
      Thyroid swellings in the art of Italian Renaissance.
      ]. Similar situations can be found in Asia and Middle East. The majority of the hospitals in Europe were built by monks and priests, and the hospitals were close to a monastery [
      • Artusi l.
      Antica Ospitalità.
      ]. It is evident of the spirit of compassion and brotherhood. Despite a significant and continuous progress in medical knowledge and scientific approach to a patient, the opinion of the general public was that each disease was a sort of punishment from God. Patients went to religious centers to be forgotten from their inevitable human sins, and thus to be healed. In modern times, while we are going to determine the different biological mechanisms as cause of different diseases, we should accept that the concept of disease as punishment from God still exists. In the period 1350–1400, Europe was devastated by severe pandemics of Plague (Black Death) which killed more than 50% of the population, generating terror and depression. The cause for this disaster was related to the more extravagant factors, based on superstition and to the realistic and pragmatic observation of the impotence to treat the disease. In many cities of Europe, Jews were persecuted, thousands of women were burnt alive, because they were considered witches who spread the disease around. In general, the pandemic was seen as a punishment from God. Soon after this period, Europe enjoyed a major economic and cultural prosperity. The Renaissance started in Italy, and soon spread all over Europe. There was a general optimism; the middle class became rich and local Princes gave a strong impulse to any form of art and science. The concept of “homo faber” was accepted in the general culture. Each man makes up his destiny (homo faber), including religious salvation. Science and medicine made significant progresses [
      • Byme J.P.
      The black death.
      ]. The “pauperism”, a cultural movement which underlined the importance of taking care of the poor people, was accepted by many religious and secular intellectuals. In the Renaissance, many paintings and sculptures were commissioned by local churches and the message of art was supposed to be a religious message for those who attended the Mess. In times when the majority of people could neither write nor read, the visual communication through figures could easily bring the message of the Church, including the message to care of the less lucky people [
      • Sterpetti A.V.
      • DeToma G.
      • De Cesare A.
      Thyroid swellings in the art of Italian Renaissance.
      ]. Artists were commissioned the works, and many of them went far away to describe the holiness of being sick. There are many examples. Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) painted the Dead Christ (Fig. 1) like one of the many patients dying in a hospital bed. The painting remained in his studio until the death of the artist, who was afraid he went too far. Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio (1571–1610) represented often Saints as common people animating the “tavernas” and the street of Rome, where low class people went, and the artist loved to go. Caravaggio painted the Death Virgin under the commission of a papal lawyer for his chapel in Santa Maria della Scala in Rome. Caravaggio gave to the scene monumentality and nobility to all the figures, Apostles and Maria Maddalena, who surround the Death Virgin, who appears aristocratic in her humble dress and aspect. Historians report that the model of the Holy Virgin was a young woman found dead in the river of Rome (Tevere). Finally, in Michelangelo Buonarroti's Pietà, it is possible to identify in Jesus the many young patients dying in hospital Fig. 2). Artists of the European Renaissance clearly stated the holiness of sick people, just after the pandemics of plague which terrified Europe, and which was seen as a punishment from God. The way artists tried to describe the holiness of sick, dying people, is almost a scream to bring light in the darkness of the recent past. Each patient is holy, and this concept is at the basis of modern medicine.
      Fig. 1
      Fig. 1Dead Christ (Andrea Mantegna-1480- Tempera on canvas- Pinacoteca di Brera-Milan).
      Fig. 2
      Fig. 2Pietà Vaticana (Michelangelo Buonarroti 1497–99- Basilica di San Pietro- Rome).

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