There’s a Very Modern Health Issue Hidden in These 500-Year-Old Paintings

The relationship between art and science blossomed during the Renaissance era. It was during this time that professionals first began to study and understand anatomy, and how it related to our health. Looking back, we can sometimes see subtle signs of diseases they didn’t know existed yet.

Several researchers discovered this while reviewing Renaissance paintings of female figures. It turns out artists may have unknowingly painted figures showing physical signs of cancer — and they probably didn’t even know it.

In the 1500s, medicine and art went hand-in-hand

A doctor examines an ultrasound.

Doctors and artists had a lot in common centuries ago. | Remains/iStock/Getty Images

Doctors and artists frequently consulted one another throughout the Renaissance to better understand and illustrate the ins and outs of human anatomy.

Artists observed physicians to better portray how muscles and bones influenced people’s appearances. Physicians needed artists’ help drawing images to go along with their scientific papers. There’s a lot we can still learn from the creative and intellectual minds of centuries past.

Next: Did they even know what cancer was back then?

A Renaissance understanding of breast cancer

A black and white illustration.

Death wasn’t far from anyone’s mind during the Renaissance. | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Leonardo da Vinci started dissecting cadavers in the 1400s, physicians and artists alike started learning more about how different parts of the human body worked — and what happened when they didn’t. It would take a few hundred more years for surgeons to begin actively removing tumors in an attempt to “cure” cancer.

Next: It was probably better not to get treatment.

The first mastectomy

Two surgeons at work.

The origins of mastectomies can be traced back to the 1600s. | Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images

Officially first recorded in the late 1800s, the medical mastectomy proposed the removal of breast and surrounding tissues in an effort to stop cancer from spreading to other parts of the body. However, it’s likely this type of treatment started as early as the 1600s.

Other treatments likely involved the use of oils applied to cancerous areas of the body, even though we now know this practice can’t actually fix the problem.

Next: This artist might have painted a tumor by accident.

The Night — Michele di Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio

A painting of a woman, an elderly man and a baby angel.

Does the woman in this painting have breast cancer? | Luigi Manfredi via YouTube

Inspired by the previous work of Michelangelo, the painting appears to show a cancerous tumor — or something resembling one — in the center of the female subject’s left breast.

Next: This breast cancer symptom isn’t easy to miss.

The Allegory of Fortitude — Maso da San Friano

A doctor observing a mammogram of an X-ray.

The painting depicted a woman with a very common breast cancer symptom. | Thomasandreas/Getty Images

Studying the painting, the researchers observed that the female figure seems to show breast cancer symptoms like excessive swelling.

Next: How many women had breast cancer in the 1500s?

Was breast cancer more common 500 years ago?

happy couple cradling their sleeping newborn

Families are a lot smaller now than they were 500 years ago. |

Back then, doctors didn’t have a name for what we now call breast cancer. It’s therefore impossible to measure how common it may or may not have been compared to now.

However, women did have more children on average during this time than they do now — anywhere from five to 10, while today’s average hovers closer to 2. Spending much of their time pregnant might have increased their cancer risk.

Next: Looking at a few paintings could save your life.

Early signs of breast cancer you shouldn’t ignore

Woman feeling her breast for lumps.

Be vigilant for any signs of changes. | Tharakorn/iStock/Getty Images

Caught early, breast cancer is often curable. Skin irritation, lumps, changes in coloration, swelling, and discharge are all possible warning signs.

One other common physical sign is something called nipple retraction, which researchers observed in the artwork above. This occurs when the nipple appears to turn inward. It’s not always the result of cancer, but it’s worth a visit to your doctor.

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