How medicine is similar to painters in the Middle Ages

by Ted Bacharach, MD

On several occasions I was able to wander through various art museums including the Louvre and the Prado as well as several others.

I was always impressed with the fervor with which the artists in the Middle Ages painted religious themes. I wondered whether they really were that religious. It was not until recently when discussing art with someone who had worked with these projects that I found out why these religious themes were so popular.

These painters who lived in the Middle Ages lived in a society where only the church or nobility could afford art. An artist who wished to survive had to paint things that someone would pay for, hence the fervor with which religious themes found a spot on canvases or ceilings or other sites. One of the few exceptions that I was aware of was Hieronymus Bosch. He lived in the 14 and 1500’s but painted a large variety of fantastic imagery with considerably less preoccupation with religious themes. Apparently the reason he was able to do such out of the ordinary painting was because he married a rich wife and, unlike most artists in his era, did not have to rely on the church or nobility for support. Many of Bosch’s paintings are housed in the Prado Museum in Madrid (Incidentally, the Muslim mosques do not have reproductions of animals or man, the result was that Muslim artists did not paint religious themes.)

Is there a resemblance to modern medicine?

I think that perhaps many of the changes we have witnessed in the last twenty years in medicine have been the result of finances and the desire of physicians to make a living. The intrusion of HMO’s, employers, insurance plans of many types has resulted in a separation of the physician from the patient. We all like to please the individual or institution that provides us with sustenance. At the very least, we physicians should be aware of this wedge.

Ted Bacharach is a physician who blogs at the Placebo Journal Blog.

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