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, indicated that looking at classical art is a unique opportunity through which a secular audience can encounter the beauty of Catholic history, especially with regard to care for the sick and poor.
“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.”
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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.