Renaissance Toe Phenomenon in BMJ

December 14 2020

Image of Renaissance Toe Phenomenon in BMJ

Picture: BMJ

Posted by Adam Busiakiewicz:

The prestigious BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal) have published a curious article by François Sellal MD. on the so-called Babinski sign in Renaissance Paintings.

The 'Babinski' toe phenomenon is an officially recognised phenomenon in the medical profession that happens to new-borns whose pyramidal tract is not fully developed at birth. This can cause the toes of new-born babies to be raised upwards. It seems that this phenomenon has been observed in many Renaissance paintings.

Sellal's article concludes in his results that:

An unquestionable upgoing toe was apparent in 90 (30%) of the 302 paintings. The Babinski sign was present in more than 60% of Christ Child paintings by Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling, Martin Schongauer, and Matthias Grünewald. A bilateral Babinski sign was observed in three paintings. Stimulation of the sole was noted in 48/90 (53%) paintings and was always present in paintings by Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci, and Giorgione. No association existed between the presence of the Babinski sign and the period during which the painter was active.

The article's author muses on whether this was an attempt by artists to bring greater realism to their infant figures, rather than simply idealising them. Or alternatively, and which corresponds to my own thoughts, was this simply a mannerist stylistic choice?

I suppose this is a rather fun piece for Christmas, especially for medical researchers who've had quite a lot on their plate this year. However, and as I often remind myself, paintings are not photographs. Thus, we must always exert some caution.

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