Reflections on medicine and art

Bojana Cokić, MD
Children’s Hospital, Zajecar, Serbia

 Down syndrome Adoration of the Christ Child Anonymous Metropolitan Museum of Art  Prader-Willi syndrome La Monstrua Desnuda Juan Carreno de Miranda Museo Nacional del Prado  Angelman syndrome Boy with a Puppet Giovanni Francesca Carota Castelvecchio Museum  Dwarfism Bufón don Sebastián de Morra Diego Velasquez Museo del Prado
Down syndrome
Adoration of the Christ Child
Anonymous

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Prader-Willi syndrome
La Monstrua Desnuda
Juan Carreno de Miranda
Museo Nacional del Prado
Angelman syndrome
Boy with a Puppet
Giovanni Francesca Carota
Castelvecchio Museum
Dwarfism
Bufón don Sebastián de Morra
Diego Velasquez
Museo del Prado

 

Oscar Wilde believed that life imitates art and that what we perceive is beautiful only because “art” has taught us to regard it as such. But if indeed “life is art,” as Maxim Gorki wrote, “to be found in all its beauty and joy,” then clearly life has been with us since time immemorial. It follows that art is best expressed, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote, not by making something new, but by telling the old in a new way.

This many great artists have achieved in various ways, and so have scientists. In the The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli displayed female beauty. Leonardo da Vinci, the ideal of the Renaissance man and a universal genius, was a great master of such effects, painting, for example, the fetus in the uterus. In one of his paintings, Salvador Dali imitated an electrocardiogram showing digitalis induced ST segment depression; and in Landscape of butterflies he painted the hereditary basis of life, DNA. In the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, Rembrandt painted a human body being dissected in all its stark reality.

Many other diseases and genetic syndromes have provided inspiration for artists and were shown in paintings many years before being described by physicians:

  • John Langdon Down (1828-1896) described the Down syndrome in 1866, but this was painted in 1515 by an unknown Flemish painter in an Adoration of the Christ Child.
  • Carreno de Miranda, a Spanish physician, painted in 1680 a girl with Prader-Willi syndrome (Eugenia Martinez Valleji) called La Monstrua Desnuda
  • Dr. Harry Angelman, a pediatrician, described Angelman syndrome, shown by the Verona painter Giovanni Francesca Carota’s in the Puppet Children.
  • Diego Velasquez, court painter to King Philip IV of Spain, painted dwarfs such as the jester Sebastian de Morra.

BOJANA COKIĆ, MD, is a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Zajecar, Serbia, where she was been Head of Department Pediatrics from 1986 to 2004 and Head of the Neonatology Service since 2007. She graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Belgrade in 1981, where she completed her residency in pediatrics in 1989. Her specialization is in clinical genetics; in 1992 she introduced a registry in Zajecar for congenital anomalies and in 2009, she established the Association for Down Syndrome in Zajecar. She has published about sixty papers.