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“Mona Lisa” and “Starry Night” as Manifests of Sickness

The first artifact that I chose is “Mona Lisa” by Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci. Many believe that this masterpiece has been painted between 1503 and 1506 in the Italian Renaissance period. Now, this artifact is part of the permanent collection of the Louvre Museum in Paris. The second painting is “Starry Night” by Dutch post-impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh, written in 1889 when he was a patient at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole Asylum in France. Since 1941, it has been a permanent exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

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The common theme of both artifacts is their manifestation of significant diseases that led to death. To begin with, in “Mona Lisa”, the portrait of wealthy silk merchant wife Lisa Gherardini was painted. At the beginning of the 21st century, some medical workers pointed out the presence of a potential lipid disorder captured in the very detailed portrait of Lisa Gherardini. Mehra and Campbell (2018) revealed “the connection between hyperlipidemia and consequent ischemic heart disease, which may have led to Gherardini’s demise” (p. 1325). Moreover, Richardson et al. (2017) found similarities while comparing schematic rendition of a “transverse section through the human hippocampal formation and parahippocampal gyrus” and a piece of “Starry Night” (p. 394). The scholars claimed that the painting might be the subconscious demonstration of van Gogh’s disease. Therefore, a framework of artifacts’ analysis bounds the discussion of art to its ability to manifest the sickness.

Art’s ability to reveal the author’s or sitter’s diseases is powerful and only strengthens my interest in medicine. The artifacts I have chosen to show that paintings (and other art products such as music, sculptures, and others) can be used as another way to diagnose health problems in humanitarian medicine. Besides, “iconodiagnosis” is a search for symptoms of possible health issues and further medical research of them in pieces of art and portraits. So, working knowledge of humanities may be applied in the medical coder’s career, as this experience may broaden the picture of complicated diseases. For instance, critically analyzing patients’ artwork in detail, as discussed above scholars did (Richardson et al., 2017), may help medical workers receive insights about possible health issues more quickly.

When I searched for helpful resources, I found out that there are not many resources on art, as my topic is mainly related to clinical cases pictured in art. I found sources that emphasize medical practice and included them in the report because it would not be right to ignore humanitarian medicine while analyzing my topic applying to art masterpieces. The main obstacle in doing the research was to filter the articles because some academic papers studied how diseases are pictured in the art pieces consciously and intentionally. As my topic is related to the subconscious picture of health issues, I decided not to include such resources in the analysis. The content of resources concerning “Starry Night” is similar, whereas the discussion of “Mona Lisa” raises debates.

It is claimed that Van Gogh was a post-impressionist, while in 1889, there was an impressionist rise. According to Vivian (2020), van Gogh was not a famous artist in his time, and his paintings were rarely sold because he “explored his own aesthetic ideas and incorporated them into Impressionism, focusing on “thought,” and emotional expression” (p. 134). Thus, “Starry Night” was not seen as a masterpiece in 1889 by impressionists and other art critics, and van Gogh was unrecognized. On the contrary, “Mona Lisa” was a valuable portrait from the beginning, as well as Leonardo Da Vinci was a famous artist among the Italian nobility. In the context of art history, this artifact is a product of the High Renaissance period.

Artifacts are different in their relation to the topic, as “Mona Lisa” demonstrates the illness of the model, while “Starry Night” shows the sickness of the artist itself. Scholars agree on temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) that influenced the artist’s mental condition and most of his masterpieces (Vitturi & Sanvito, 2021). They also highly emphasize the circumstance under which the artifact was created, namely the Asylum in France (Richardson et al., 2017). As for the “Mona Lisa”, there were debates about the diagnosis of the sitter: some claimed it was hypothyroidism that she had (Mehra, 2018); others, as Yafi (2019), argue that Ma Dona Lisa was euthyroid. However, the way symptoms can be seen in the picture is not contested: clinical signs of health issues are pictured right in the sitter’s face, more probably, unintentionally as a part of the model’s appearance. Considering “Starry Night”, The way the artifact is related to the topic is different: scholars see the unconscious demonstration of the author’s disease (Richardson et al., 2017).

The way authors use the medium also differs: van Gogh, influenced by TLE, painted the view from the asylum’s window, applying his emotions, whereas Da Vinci pictured the wife of the wealthy merchant. However, different medium’s usage can be explained by the period masterpieces were created: Impressionism or Renaissance. Analysis of paintings for signs of health issues can provide more profound knowledge about models’ and artists’ diseases, so it should be studied not only by medical but by humanitarian scholars too. According to Franco (2019), “the representation of human body in paintings and sculptures can be analyzed with a medical look in order to find out any kind of diagnosable disease” (p. 747). So, from hearing the message of my thesis statement, medical workers and scholars of art can benefit because the knowledge on art and health can be broadened by researching the junction of related sciences. Moreover, students may become interested in developing the sphere of medical art after hearing the message concerning the analysis of two artifacts: “Mona Lisa” and “Starry Night”.

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Franco, V. (2019). Icono-diagnosis: A Challenge Between Medicine and Art. Senses and Sciences, 6(2).

Mehra, M. R., & Campbell, H. R. (2018). The Mona Lisa Decrypted: Allure of an Imperfect Reality. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 93(9), 1325-1327.

Richardson, B. A., Rusyniak, A. M., Rusyniak, W. G., & Rodning, C. B. (2017). Neuroanatomical Interpretation of the Painting Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. Neurosurgery, 81(3), 389-396.

Vitturi, B. K., & Sanvito, W. L. (2021). The veiled intimacy between neurology and Vincent van Gogh. Revue Neurologique.

Vivian L. (2020). The Shift in Critical Perception on Vincent van Gogh’s Artwork and His Posthumous Fame. European Journal of Arts, (1), 133-136.

Yafi, M. (2019). Mona Lisa is euthyroid: a modern-day diagnosis. Hormones, 18(3), 331-332.

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