The Art of Healing: Potent Pigments

Top: Titian and workshop, Eternal Father and Angels, 1519–20, oil on panel, 22 x 45 1/4 in., Scuola Grande Arciconfra ternita di San Rocco, Venice, Italy
Bottom: Attributed to Giorgione, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1506–7, oil on canvas, 27 7/8 x 35 3/4 in., Scuola Grande Arciconfra ternita di San Rocco, Venice, Italy

From time immemorial we have put our belief in powerful objects with the hope of overcoming sickness. Pilgrimage was invented for this. Delphi, Lourdes, and Santiago de Compostela are all places of power that are intertwined with art.

In 2017 the NCMA showed a painting with a reputation of pilgrimage and healing. Christ Carrying the Cross, attributed to Giorgione, was part of the exhibition Glory of Venice. Venice had been rocked by the plague more than 20 times by 1500, at times killing upward of 25% of the population. The painting quickly became famous for healing after it was hung in the Church of San Rocco, home of the relics of the patron saint of Venice and healer of the bubonic plague. The number of pilgrims and their donations were so large that it paid for much of the magnificent Scuola Grande di San Rocco adjacent to the church, seat of a confraternity devoted to plague victims, and Tintoretto’s extraordinary murals.

St. Luke as an Apothecary and Painter, 1368, detail from a gospel book by John of Troppau, Austrian National Library, Vienna. During the late medieval period, St. Luke was often depicted as a painter in contemporary surroundings, giving us wonderful insight into the studio practice, materials, and tools of the day.

The division of art from medicine is a modern concept. Witness St. Luke, apostle to Jesus, physician, biblical chronicler of miraculous healing, and legendary portrait painter of the Virgin Mary. In Europe, by the Middle Ages, Luke was the patron saint of the combined guild of physicians, apothecaries, and painters. Why? Because the medicine physicians prescribed was one and the same as painters’ pigments and paint materials! The apothecary supplied those materials to doctors, painters, and anyone in need of medicine.

Hematite, “blood stone” or red ochre, with over a million years of use as a paint pigment by our ancestors, was prescribed by doctors for problems with the eye, bladder, blood, and liver. Lapis lazuli stone, source of the extraordinarily expensive ultramarine blue, was used as an aphrodisiac and treated hallucinations. Lead white, invented in the time of the ancient Greeks, was also an aphrodisiac and prescribed for incessant crying. Gold was used for psychiatric problems. Gum Arabic, the medium for watercolor, for migraine. Linseed, the medium for oil paint, for convulsions, fevers, and colic. Madder, source of the pigment rose madder, used since ancient Egypt, was prescribed for leprosy. Mummy or mummia, both the natural petrochemical resin and the mummified remains of ancient Egyptians (erroneously thought to be a source of this resin) was used for headache, ear and throat pain, coughs, paralysis, heart and stomach disorders, broken bones, wounds of the sex organs, and internal issues such as renal disorders.

While modern studies have shown that many paint materials are useless as medicine, if not outright poisonous, some are truly effective. Dragon’s blood, a pigment long thought to originate from battles between dragons and elephants, but actually a red resin from a rather angry looking tree, has been shown to have good antiseptic, antibiotic, antiviral and wound-healing properties.

We’ve come a long way in our understanding of the difference between good paint and good medicine. I don’t think anyone is going to confuse Jerry’s Artarama with Kerr Drug. But there is real reason to still believe that art heals. Modern studies show that art can have a positive effect on a patient’s well-being, shortening a stay in the hospital and even improving pain tolerance. 

Covid-19 will find its way into our art. Artists are deeply affected by the scourge of our time, just like everyone else. Their art will visualize our pain, exorcise demons, and share hope for the future. All of which are part of the healing process.

Perry Hurt
Perry Hurt is director of conservation at the NCMA.

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