Diagnosing Dürer

When a person begins to feel ill, the subsequent routine is to attempt every home remedy to cure the ailment. If after a few days a person is still feeling miserable, the next step is to ask a friend or relative. Usually, the advice given is to see a physician. Finally, the person calls their physician to schedule an appointment. Now, step back in time to the Renaissance, how do you go about this scenario? Albrecht Dürer shares the answer.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was a famous printmaker from Nuremberg, Germany. He visited Italy twice during his lifetime to immerse himself in the Italian Renaissance (more than any other Northern European artist at the time). During his visits, Dürer developed a novel interest in the human form. A contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, Dürer was more inclined toward the artistic/external anatomy of the Middle Ages, whereas da Vinci conducted scientific dissections more in tune with Renaissance philosophy. At the end of this life, Dürer began publishing a series of books aptly named Four Books on Human Proportion (Vier Bücher von menschlichen Proportion), only the first made it to publishing before his death.

Returning to the original vignette, Dürer painted many self-portraits. The portrait attached to this article was intended for a physician he was in correspondence with for a long distant consultation. The text above the drawing reads, “there, on the yellow spot, where my finger is pointing, is where my pain is.” I expect the physician who received this postage was quite fascinated initially by Dürer’s well-proportioned study. However, the doctor would then grow more perplexed by Dürer’s much-to-be-imagined description of the pain. Even as a first year medical student, I know there are many causes of left upper quadrant abdominal pain, some more serious than others.

I do not suspect many Europeans with access to healthcare in this era were able to visually depict their pain to physicians over long distances like Dürer, or even write to their physicians for that matter. This message is certainly a special treat. There are some hints of Dürer’s style that can be inferred from this portrait. One such example is of the hand pointing toward his pain. We can see the edge of the right abdomen through the hand, implying that Dürer first drafted the body and then the upper limbs. Dürer achieves a wonderful sense of depth in his portrait with such a limited use of line and shadow.

The note also alludes to some interesting developments in modern medicine, specifically telemedicine. Smartphones have the potential of providing patients care at a distance by connecting with their physicians over distances, just like Dürer. I will not linger on this topic, but the ability to upload a picture of skin lesions taken by the patient to the physician is a reality. While any technology wedging its way between the doctor-patient relationship should be approached with caution, it is heart warming to see how a 16th century artist communicated pain to his physician and that patients today can do so similarly.

Rousselot, Jean. Medicine in Art. 1st ed. Milan: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Print.
Wisse, Jacob. “Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The
       Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/durr/hd_durr.htm
        (October 2002) 


  1. As a med school dropout now messing about in the arts, I am really impressed with this. Duerer was an incredible artist – I think he started out as a goldsmith, the elite of the trades. Print making was one which required a fine eye fr detail and immense patience, as well as imagining the letters in reverse, so was good on spatiality. Thanks for this and thanks for liking my blog.

  2. Such a new approach to Durer–I love it!

  3. Very interesting. I wish there was a letter containing the physician’s reply..

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