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Do Renaissance Paintings Capture Breast Cancer?

March 02, 2018

The-Night-640.jpg All images courtesy of "The Lancet Oncology."

By Nancy Gay

Breast cancer may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the Renaissance period, but a recent study published in The Lancet Oncology indicates women featured in famous paintings may have had breast cancer. According to the study, scientists discovered images of malignant breast cancer in "The Night" by Michele di Rodolfo del Ghirlandaio and in "The Allegory of Fortitude" by Maso di San Friano.

The Night painting

Dr. Loretta Loftus, a medical oncologist in the Department of Breast Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center and an art aficionado, has published articles about the life, art and illness of artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe. In "The Night," she identifies signs of breast cancer including the left nipple being retracted and the left breast distorted and fixed to the chest wall.

Dr. Loftus says it’s more difficult to see evidence of breast cancer in "The Allegory of Fortitude" due to shadowing. But the woman in the painting appears to have swelling of the left arm, a possible sign of lymphedema.

This isn't the first time evidence of breast cancer has been found in art. In the late 1960s, an Italian surgeon noticed an asymmetry to Bathsheba’s breast in Rembrandt’s "Bathsheba at Her Bath." The woman in the painting appears to have a distended, swollen breast that is discolored and marked with distinctive pitting. Rembrandt’s mistress Hendrickje Stoffels, who is believed to have passed away after a long battle with breast cancer, was his model for Bathsheba.

The Allegory of FortitudeAccording to the American Cancer Society, ancient physicians and surgeons believed cancer was incurable because it always seemed to return even after surgery. They believed that intervention might be more harmful than no treatment at all. Keep in mind that surgery at the time was very primitive with many complications, including blood loss. Plus, breasts at the time were also seen as a symbol of femininity, fertility and beauty, and surgically removing the breasts was considered inhumane, which means there were likely a high number of visible, advanced breast cancers.

While it is interesting to see the possibility of breast cancer in these Renaissance paintings, Dr. Loftus cautions that we should not be diagnosing breast cancer by a painting. She says we do not have any information about what else was going on with the women such as infection, illness or injury.