Wed, Sep 14, 2011 - Page 15 News List

Dissecting a masterpiece

A surgeon and his students have made ‘ward rounds’ among the canvases at London’s National Gallery, uncovering murder, syphilis and all manner of ills

By Robin Mckie  /  The Observer, LONDON

Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic (1875).

Photo: Bloomberg

At the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery, in Room 58, a painting by the 15th-century Italian artist Piero di Cosimo of a woman lying on her side has been hung opposite Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. The fame of the latter makes it a significant attraction for visitors. Yet those who shuffle past Cosimo’s canvas miss an intriguing work, not just for its enigmatic content but for the unexpected way it shows how art can be opened up through scientific scrutiny.

The painting shows a young woman, half-clothed, lying on the ground as a satyr crouches over her corpse. According to the gallery’s guidebook, the work — A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph — depicts the death of Procris, daughter of the king of Athens, who was accidentally killed by her husband Cephalus during a deer hunt. Put “death of Procris” into Google and the search throws up countless versions of Cosimo’s painting.

But Michael Baum, one of Britain’s leading cancer experts, and a keen art critic, will have none of this. “This is not a depiction of the accidental death that Ovid wrote about,” he says. “It is a painting about a murder, and a very nasty one at that.”

Baum’s interpretation is based on artistic and medical sleuthing that he has been carrying out for the past two decades. Every year he organizes an artistic “ward round” for his students, one that takes them through the rooms of the National Gallery in order to show them how medical and scientific knowledge gives a new perspective to classical paintings — and to show how art can provide new insights for a young doctor.

“Dozens of papers have been written up, and published in respected journals, by our students on subjects that range from syphilis to Paget’s disease of the skull as a result of the observations they have made in the gallery,” Baum says. “It’s a great way to learn medicine and appreciate art.”

Now Baum, visiting professor of medical humanities at University College London, is widening his audience. At the British Science Festival in the northern English town of Bradford today, he will give a lecture titled Picture of Health: The Art of Medicine, which will highlight the importance of art in medical practice, and vice versa, and which will be based on his science tours of the National Gallery, including his studies of Cosimo’s painting.

“The official guide explanation that accompanies A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph indicates that it shows a woman who has been killed after being struck accidentally by a spear,” Baum says. “This is consistent with the story of Procris and Cephalus. However, there are all sorts of clues that show this interpretation to be wrong.

“Look at her hands, for example. Both are covered with deep lacerations. There is only one way she could have got those. She has been trying to fend off an attacker who has come at her, slashing in a frenzied manner with a knife or possibly a sword. Certainly there is no way that a spear could have done that.”

There are other clues, Baum adds. The woman’s left hand is bent backwards, in a position known by surgeons as “the waiter’s tip,” typical of someone who has received a serious injury at points C3 and C4 on the cervical cord. The severing at these points causes nerve damage that makes the wrist flex and the fingers curl up in the manner of a waiter taking a backhanded tip.

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