The dangers of over-interpretation

September 21 2011

Image of The dangers of over-interpretation

Picture: The National Gallery

Professor Michael Baum, a leading cancer expert, has given a lecture entitled Picture of Health: the Art of Medicine. He says that many paintings contain over-looked medical stories and clues. But is Baum in danger of over-interpreting art?

For example, take Piero di Cosimo's Satyr Mourning over a Nymph, above. The Observer takes up the story: [More below]

According to the gallery's guidebook, the work – A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph – depicts the death of Procris, daughter of the king of Athens, who was accidentally killed by her husband Cephalus during a deer hunt. [...]

But Professor Michael Baum, one of Britain's leading cancer experts, and a keen art critic, will have none of this. "This is not a depiction of the accidental death that Ovid wrote about," he says. "It is a painting about a murder, and a very nasty one at that." [...]

"Look at her hands, for example. Both are covered with deep lacerations. There is only one way she could have got those. She has been trying to fend off an attacker who has come at her, slashing in a frenzied manner with a knife or possibly a sword. Certainly there is no way that a spear could have done that."

There are other clues, adds Baum. The woman's left hand is bent backwards, in a position known by surgeons as "the waiter's tip", typical someone who has received a serious injury at points C3 and C4 on the cervical cord. The severing at these points causes nerve damage that makes the wrist flex and the fingers curl up in the manner of a waiter taking a backhanded tip. [...]

Intriguingly, Cosimo may still have been trying to depict the death of Procris, adds Baum. The painter may simply have been the victim of his own acute observational powers. "I think he may well have gone to a mortuary and asked to be allowed to paint the body of a young woman and got the body of one who had been murdered by knife – and so he faithfully put on to his canvas what he saw..."

The trouble is, a quick look at Piero di Cosimo's ouevre reveals he was quite fond of the old bent wrist thing (or 'waiter's tip' as Baum calls it). Here's an example here, and another here. So we have three possible solutions: 1) Cosimo knew a lot of waiters; 2) he spent a lot of time in morgues; or 3) Professor Baum is reading too much into the picture. 

You can zoom in on the wounds here - so see for yourself whether they are sword or spear inflicted...

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