Day 6

What Renaissance paintings can teach us about cancer

Researchers recently uncovered two of the earliest known depictions of breast cancer and cancer expert Michael Baum says we can learn a lot about the disease from history's art models.

Researchers recently uncovered two of the earliest known depictions of breast cancer in 16th century paintings

People look at a painting by Michele di Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio during the press presentation of the exhibition 'The Renaissance and Dream. Bosch, Veronese, Greco' at the Luxemburg Museum. (Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)

If you've ever seen a print of Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, you know that Renaissance artists were masters of human anatomy, but they didn't always portray their subjects in a flattering light.

Models are often shown with infections or more serious diseases like breast cancer.

Dr. Michael Baum, a prominent British oncologist, has spent much of his career as a cancer researcher. For years, he's been examining paintings and diagnosing the subjects within them. 

"There's a lot of them around and it's been a kind of hobby of mine ever since I took an interest in breast cancer," he explains to Day 6 host Brent Bambury. 

"I happened to be a lover of fine arts, and I've studied the history of art, so I've been collecting images to illustrate my lectures on breast cancer. And the first description of breast cancer goes back to the ancient Egyptians, so the disease is not new," says Baum.

Earliest known depictions 

'The Allegory of Fortitude', depicted by Maso di San Friano. As seen in the close-up at the bottom left, Dr. Baum says the left breast "is deeply indented." (The Lancet Oncology)

Recently, researchers uncovered two of the earliest known depictions of breast cancer in paintings dating back to the 1500s: The Night, painted by Michele di Rodolfo del Ghirlandaio, and The Allegory of Fortitude, depicted by Maso da San Friano. 

Baum, who was not involved in the research, says the signs of cancer are easy to spot. He's made several of diagnoses of his own.

In The Night, the reclining woman's "left breast is very distorted with the inversion of the nipple, [which is] absolutely characteristic of breast cancer," Baum says. 

In The Allegory of Fortitude, cancer is depicted in "the left breast and it's the lower segment which is deeply indented. That, again, is characteristic of breast cancer." 

Baum says he also spotted signs of breast cancer in Rembrandt's Bathsheba.

"Bathsheba at Her Bath," by Rembrandt. The photo depicts Rembrandt's lover Hendrickje Stoffels, who was diagnosed as having breast cancer by Dr. Baum and his colleague. (Smarthistory via YouTube)

The famous painting shows the artist's lover Hendrickje Stoffels naked at her bath.

According to Baum, who first spotted the disease with a colleague in the 1980s, Stoffels has a deformity in her left breast. Other research, however, has argued that it was "unlikely" that Stoffels had cancer. 

But Baum says the painting is a good documentation of Stoffels' illness. 

"She died eight years after that [painting] was completed, and the record of her illness and dying was very characteristic of a woman dying with advanced breast cancer and liver failure from secondaries in the liver," says Baum.

STIs also represented 

Baum says cancer isn't the only disease that is often portrayed in art. Many of the models also have sexually transmitted infections. 

"If you know where to look, and you know the symptoms and signs to look for, pretty much half of the models in these paintings have got syphilis. It's all over the place," he says. 

I believe fine art has a lot to offer in teaching medical students and postgraduates, and it grips them by the throat.- Dr. Michael Baum 

But what's the fascination over painting people who are sick and dying? Baum hypothesizes that it's about creating a spectacle. 

"I think it's drama. We're talking about a period of Expressionism, early Renaissance Expressionism," he says. 

Useful to present-day doctors 

Baum's fascination with diagnosing illnesses has led him to develop a lesson plan for his students at the University College London where he is a professor emeritus of surgery, and a visiting professor of medical humanities. Years ago, he started taking his medical students to evaluate the health of portrait subjects at the National Gallery of London. 

"I believe fine art has a lot to offer in teaching medical students and postgraduates, and it grips them by the throat," he says. 

"These paintings can illustrate, first of all, the diseases always being with us. And secondly, if you choose your paintings correctly, you can demonstrate through art the existential threat to the woman's life, and the fear of mutilation from the surgery." 

"It might help them retain a degree of humility and compassion and understand a little bit about what their patients are suffering."

To hear more from Dr. Michael Baum, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.