The Three Graces (Rubens 1577-1640). .
The Three Graces (Rubens 1577-1640). . / SUR

From Mona Lisa’s squint to one of The Three Graces with cancer

  • An exhibition at the Costa del Sol hospital looks at how medicine evolved between the 15th and 20th centuries, through 53 reproductions of major works of art

You may never have noticed, but the left breast of one of the women in the painting The Three Graces, by Rubens (the model on the right of the picture) is smaller than the right one, the nipple is retracted and she has a lesion on the superoexterno quadrant, which could indicate advanced breast cancer.

Neither might you have considered that in Sorollo’s work ¡Aún Dicen Que El Pescado Es Caro! the central figure has a lacerated and contused wound with severe hemorrhage, a sign of shock; or even that the famous Mona Lisa, who looks as if she is trying to hide a squint, suffers from facial paralysis, which is reflected in that outline of a smile, alopecia hidden beneath a wig and a skin condition called scleroderma.

There are many different ways of looking at works of art and what they tell us. They talk of an era, and of customs of the time, and an exhibition which opened this week at the Costa del Sol hospital invites visitors to also reflect upon the medical aspect. This display of 53 reproductions of works by famous artists between the 15th and 20th centuries highlights the way in which medicine has developed over all these years. It is a type of diagnosis carried out through art.

On their canvases, the artists portrayed health conditions and operations, which enabled them to explain medical matters (symptomology and the treatment of prevalent illnesses) when diagnostic tools such as radiography and scanners didn’t exist.

Laparotomy (Vicente Castell Domenech (1871-1934). “Laparotomy is the opening and surgical exploration of abdominal and pelvic organs to diagnose illnesses which cannot be identified by other means.”

Laparotomy (Vicente Castell Domenech (1871-1934). “Laparotomy is the opening and surgical exploration of abdominal and pelvic organs to diagnose illnesses which cannot be identified by other means.” / S

“This exhibition has a double objective. On one hand, it shows how medicine has advanced in the form of techniques, treatments and operations, but it also humanises the medical profession, by showing human reactions to illness,” explains the head of projects at the Reina Sofía hospital in Cordoba, Pedro López, who officially presented the exhibition earlier this week. It was first held to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Cordoba hospital last year, and is now going on tour.

‘Arte y medicina’ can be seen in the corridors of the hall at the Costa del Sol hospital until 5 May. Each painting (most of them are reproductions from the Prado Museum) is accompanied by a description which includes details of the symptoms and treatment of the health condition which is alluded to in the picture.

In Sorolla’s painting of ‘Padre Jofré Protegiendo a un Loco’, we see the monk defending someone who is considered ‘crazy’ from insults and agression by a group of children. “This is a clear reflection of the attempt made by some groups in the 15th century to integrate those with psychiatric illness into society,” explains Pedro López.

‘The Quack Toothpuller’, by Teodoor Rombouts, shows a moment during a peculiar dental extraction. ‘Barbers, and later surgeons, were the precursors of oral and maxilofacial surgery, which became officially regulated in 1952’ says the commentary which accompanies this reproduction.

Selection of works

Professionals from all the medical specialities at the Reina Sofía hospital were responsible for choosing the work of art which was most relevant to their department, under the supervision of the curator of the exhibition, art historian Luis Gómez.

“Medicine, history, art and tradition are brought together in this display, which is an invitation to see how health evolved and how the diagnosis and treatment of illness changed during each period of history,” he explains.

Velázquez, El Bosco, Sorolla, Goya and Murillo are just some of the artists whose works have been selected for this unusual exhibition, in which for example we discover that the god Vulcan, in Velázquez’s painting La Fragua de Vulcano, has an asymmetrical hip, which makes one suspect that he suffered from coxarthrosis. Or in the painting called El Albañil Herido, byGoya, where the subject has “multiple injuries, probably from an accident at work such as falling from scaffolding,” and Los Últimos Sacramentos (El Albañil Herido), by Rafael Romero de Torres, which portrays emergency treatment being carried out, in this case for someone also suffering from multiple injuries.