Art & Medicine (Pre-1850)

Today I’m discussing the topic of art and medicine, with a focus on Western medicine before the year 1850. A preliminary note before diving into the topic, the focus on Western medicine is not intended to diminish the value of non-Western medicine; rather, it is a practical decision I made in the interest of time management, as both types of medicine are each incredibly complex and deserving of a deeper reflection.

When discussing the history of Western medicine, my approach is to divide the topic into three general themes: Early Medicine, Monastic Medicine, and Scholastic Medicine, each of which is filled with remarkable scientific achievements. I encourage you to further explore this fascinating subject through the resources listed below. To briefly summarize, Early Medicine covers the period prior to 1000 C.E., Monastic Medicine refers to the period from around 1000 C.E. to approximately 1800 C.E., while Scholastic Medicine encompasses the time period from 1800 C.E. to the present.[1]

In the context of the history of Western medicine, it is important to acknowledge the lack of modern technological advancements, which required people to work through experimentation and trial and error. It is important to also acknowledge that the supernatural played a significant role in shaping medical beliefs and practices prior to the emergence of Scholastic Medicine. For the sake of this discussion, supernatural is defined as the influence of religious and cosmic forces on an object or person. This supernatural quality to medicine was, and continues to be, of great importance as it provides an explanation for certain bodily phenomena that remain beyond the realm of modern medicine.

The use of supernatural beliefs in medicine provided a sense of control over what was perceived as inexplicable and uncontrollable. Examples of such beliefs include the concept of demonic possession, which was considered a consequence of breaking social or religious taboos, as well as magical practices. Magic played a fundamental role in medical practices, dating back to ancient civilizations such as Ancient Egypt.

For the Egyptians, magic was not necessarily associated with causing harm, but rather focused on curing illnesses. Additionally, trial and error was a prominent feature of Egyptian medicine, and their findings were documented for future generations to refer to. For instance, Egyptian medical recipes and lists of healing properties of magical stones were written down for future medical practitioners. Two such examples of this can be seen in Figure 1a, which depicts an ostracon with medical recipes, and Figure 1b, which displays a tablet listing magical stones and their healing properties.

Ancient Egyptian artifacts like these are valuable to historians because they offer a rare glimpse into the healing practices of earlier societies and their writing systems. The Ancient Greeks also wrote down their medical procedures and these texts were used as official or unofficial medical texts nearly 1500 years after they were written. Unlike earlier beliefs that diseases were caused by supernatural forces, Greek medicine viewed diseases as having natural causes, while still acknowledging the role of the supernatural. For instance, certain gods and heroes were associated with health and disease, with Asclepius being the main god of medicine. Many Greek towns had temples dedicated to Asclepius, such as the one shown in Figure 2, which depicts a relief of a woman who has just given birth. The seated woman may have commissioned the relief as a gift to Asclepius or Hygieia for allowing her to survive the medical crisis. It should be noted that the Hippocratic Oath, which doctors take upon graduating from medical school and vow to do no harm, is derived from Greek medicine.

Hippocrates, a prominent figure in the history of medicine, was a member of the Asclepius guild and lived from around 460 B.C.E. to 380 B.C.E. He believed in reasoning and empirical observation, and authored the Hippocratic Corpus, which advanced the notion that diseases are natural and should be treated using empiricism and prognostics. The Hippocratic Corpus also provided medical practitioners with practical guidelines for treatment and established an ethical and professional framework for medicine. Among its most significant texts was De materia medica, a five-volume encyclopedia of medicinal herbs and natural substances. Created by Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician to the Roman Army in 50 C.E., De materia medica is renowned as one of the longest-lasting medical texts ever written, having been translated into numerous languages and disseminated around the world.  In Figure 3, one can see an Arabic version of the text, which features a depiction of two men preparing a honey-based medicine within a pharmacy.  This image also provides a fascinating insight into the appearance of pharmacies in the Seljuq region of modern-day Turkey. Figure 4 also features medicinal uses for oxen inscribed on the page, serving as a testament to the enduring importance of natural substances in the practice of medicine.

Moving on to the next historical period, we shift our focus to Monastic Medicine, which was characterized by its reliance on the concept of humors. The humors were considered to be the fundamental components of all living beings and were thought to play a central role in medical diagnoses and treatments. It is important to note that the term "humors" in this context does not refer to something amusing, but rather to the four elements of the natural world that people believed constituted the body. As depicted in Figure 5, each humor was associated with specific physical and personality traits and was linked to particular seasons. The four humors included Blood, Phlegm, Black Bile, and Yellow Bile.

Blood, for instance, was associated with Spring and was believed to be produced by the liver. Individuals with the appropriate amount of Blood in their humors were considered to have outgoing personality traits, such as being friendly and jovial, and had a slightly rosy complexion. However, an excess of Blood could lead to foolishness or a bright red appearance. Yellow Bile, which was associated with Summer, was not considered a desirable humor to possess, as it was linked to traits such as bitterness, short-temperedness, and recklessness. People with Yellow Bile also had a greenish or yellowish skin tone. Black Bile was associated with Autumn and was considered an indicator of depression. Secreted by the spleen, Black Bile was linked to traits such as laziness, fearfulness, and poor health. People with black hair and/or black eyes were also believed to have an excess of Black Bile.  Interestingly, it seems cancer was thought to be caused by an excess of this humor. Finally, Phlegm, associated with Winter, was considered an indicator of reserved behavior. Individuals with an excess of Phlegm were believed to be low-spirited, forgetful, and often had white hair.

It is worth noting that people in the past believed that an individual's birth date determined their four-humor makeup, and therefore, their physical build and personality traits. The concept of humors, although now largely discredited, was a dominant feature of medical practice for centuries and had a profound impact on the development of medicine in the Middle Ages.

It is important to remember that during this period, astrology and astronomy were seen as one and the same, and it was not considered outlandish for one's personality and genetic makeup to be dictated by the positions of planets in accordance with the stars. An illustration from Fasciculo di medicina depicts a male figure with constellations covering the corresponding parts of the human body that they ruled can be seen in Figure 6. This compilation of medical knowledge incorporated not only Medieval but also Renaissance knowledge, with the influence of Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna visible in the illustrator's work.

The concept that everything in the cosmos is made up of these four humors also aided in the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses. For instance, a common cold caught on a cold winter day could be remedied by balancing out the other three humors appropriately. Bloodletting was a common solution for balancing one's humors, which involved the use of leeches to apply behind the ears to alleviate vertigo symptoms. Although dangerous, bloodletting was instrumental in the history of modern medicine and paved the way for advancements such as blood transfusions.

It is worth noting that these practices may seem archaic, but they were the standard at the time. Germ theory did not emerge until the 1850s, so the supernatural and magic were employed to explain the unexplainable in medicine.

The following discussion centers on the intersection between art and medicine, specifically exploring the use of magical objects as a form of home-made medicine during the Renaissance in Europe. In this regard, Figure 7 depicts a particularly striking example of a gilt coconut, a symbol of luxury and exoticism during this period. As coconuts were rare and expensive, they were considered a mystical object with healing properties, particularly in the neutralization of poison. It was widely believed that drinking from a coconut cup would offer such curative benefits. This belief was similarly associated with bezoars, the gray substance depicted in Figure 8, which was believed to cure a range of illnesses if ingested. The consumption of exotic items for their supposed healing qualities is also evident in the use of porcelain vessels made in Mexico, such as the one depicted in Figure 9. These vessels were believed to offer curative and beautifying effects, particularly in achieving the fashionable pale skin tone of the time. This trend is evident in Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas, where the Infanta Margaret Theresa is served a drink from a Mexican ceramic vessel by one of her ladies-in-waiting.  Which you can see highlighted in Figure 10. Despite the lack of scientific basis for these practices, the belief in the mystical healing properties of these objects was pervasive during the Renaissance in Europe.

The discourse on the intersection of art and medicine in Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance can shed light on the various approaches to healthcare that were prevalent in the era. While the wealthy elites of the time had access to medicine that may not have necessarily been beneficial, there were other avenues through which people accessed medical assistance. One such avenue was Monastic Medicine, where religious institutions provided medical care to the populace. However, the cures offered were often spiritual rather than physical, with the belief that illness was a manifestation of an impure soul. Consequently, remedies were aimed towards spiritual purification rather than alleviating physical discomfort.

Hildegard von Bingen, a notable figure in medical history, believed that both the mind and body needed to be strong against the devil. Her approach to medicine was based on keeping religion and medicine separate, as much as was possible in the given context. An image of her can be seen in Figure 11.

Another group of individuals sought to better understand the human body through the dissection of corpses, although such practices were illegal until the 15th century due to religious beliefs that desecrating the body would cause the soul to be without a body on Judgment Day.[2] However, when dissection became less taboo, illustrations of muscles, bones, and circulatory systems provided a deeper understanding of human anatomy.

The Renaissance saw a significant increase in tools that facilitated the study of medicine, leading to a better understanding of the human body.  Three wonderful examples of this can be seen in Figures 12a-c.  Which include two sketches by Leonardo da Vinci. The Resources section offers further information on this topic, since from the Renaissance onward there was an increasing amount of medical discoveries that lead to the world of medicine we know today.

While these works of art don’t encompass every bit of Western medical history, they do act as excellent examples for piquing interest in the topic, and hopefully result in more conversations about how we as a species viewed and treated the human body.  Especially when discussing future medical advancements, and what new discoveries may be just around the corner.  It is quite easy to look back at Egyptian and Greek medicine and think how archaic their views of the human body were, yet one can’t help but wonder what medical practitioners will think of our medicine a thousand years from now.

Fig. 1a (left) & Fig. 1b (right)
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8

Fig. 9
Fig. 10a & Fig. 10b
Fig. 11
Fig. 12a (left), Fig. 12b (center), Fig. 12c (right)


[1] C.E. denotes Common Era, a more inclusive dating method than the Christian A.D. (Anno Domini, or "year of our Lord"), and B.C.E. denotes Before the Common Era.

[2] The desecration of the human body in regards to medical knowledge and advancement was considered a serious offense in most of Europe well into the 19th century.  Yet use of cadavers was an integral part of medical studies and led to the rise of the grave robber profession.



Medieval medicine of Western Europe [Link]

Early Middle Ages [Link]

Egyptian Medicine [Link]

Ancient Greek Medicine [Link]

Miasma Theory [Link]

Hildegard of Bingen [Link]

Books & Essays

"Medicine in the Middle Ages" by Sigrid Goldiner, Metropolitan Museum of Art Publications (January 2012) [Link]

Medieval Art 2nd Ed. by Marilyn Stokstad [Link]

"Medicine in the Middle Ages" by Alice Bovey (30 Apr, 2015) [Link]


Fig. 1a (left) Ostracon with Medical Recipes, Coptic, 580-640, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Link

Fig. 1b (right) Cuneiform tablet: list of magical stones, Achaemenid or Seleucid, c.500-1000 BCE, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Link

Fig. 2 Marble votive relief fragment of goddesses, mother, nurse, and infant, Greek, late 5th century BCE, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Link

Fig. 3 "Preparing Medicine from Honey", from a Dispersed Manuscript of an Arabic Translation of De Material Medica of Dioscorides, Abdullah ibn al-Fadl, 1224 CE, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Link

Fig. 4 "Oxen amongst Foliage", Folio from a Manafi' al-Hayawan (On the Usefulness of Animals) of Ibn Bakhtishy, Ibn Bakhtishu, 1297-99, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Link

Fig. 5 Personal Image of Four Humors

Fig. 6 Fasciculo di medicina, Possibly Johannes de Ketham, 1493, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Link

Fig. 7 Coconut cup in form of an owl, c.1600, Kunstkammer Georg Laure (TEFAF Maastricht 2020), Personal Image

Fig. 8 Goa Stone and Gold Case, Unknown, c.1680-1720, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Link

Fig. 9 Covered jar, Mexican, c.1675-1700, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Link

Fig. 10a Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez, c.1656, Museo del Prado Link

Fig. 10b Detail from Las Meninas

Fig. 11 Hildegard von Bingen empfängt eine göttliche Inspiration und gibt sie an ihren Schreiber weiter, Miniatur aus dem Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias, date unknown Link

Fig. 12a (left) De humane corporis fabric (Of the Structure of the Human Body), Andreas Vesalius, 1555, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Link

Fig. 12b (center) Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci, c.1489, Gallerie dell’Accademia (Venice), Personal Image

Fig. 12c (right) Anatomy drawing, Leonardo da Vinci, c.1489, Private Collection, Personal Image

Note: All views and opinions expressed are the author's own. If you feel there is missing information or wish to discuss any of the works please contact me.