Saturday, December 14, 2019

Death with a Little Humor

Albrecht Dürer, acknowledged as one of the greatest German artists (and for my money the greatest) died at the relatively early age of only 56.  (And for every year that I stay this side of the flower bed, it seems a little younger.)

Art Historians are not sure of the exact cause of Dürer’s premature demise, but the common theory is that he might have contracted malaria during one of his visits to Italy, though no one can be certain, as the state of medicine during the sixteenth century was such that medical doctors usually did more harm than good.

Strangely, Dürer left a few clues as to what he thought he was suffering from.  This was the Renaissance, when there was a general revival of Classical Greek philosophy, architecture, and literature.  This also included the foundations of medicine, as developed by Galen, Aristotle, and Hippocrates (More specifically, it included the belief that a person’s health and personality were determined by a careful balance of the four “humors” in the body:  blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm). 

Yes, it’s a stupid idea: ANYONE who lives in New Mexico knows that the correct balance requires a careful equilibrium of coffee, red chili, green chili, and Mexican beer. 

If one of your humors were dominant, it would change your personality type, and might cause diseases.  An excess of black bile would cause melancholia, insanity, criminal behavior, or an insane desire to hold extended faculty meetings.  Too much phlegm would cause a previously normal professor to transform into a member of a university administration.  An excess of blood created lust while a too much yellow bile would cause anger and hot-headed behavior. 

People actually believed this nonsense for a long time:  the belief in medical humors persisted until at least the middle of the nineteenth century, as evidenced by all the quacks liberally bleeding their sick and dying patients for centuries.  George Washington, for example, was probably murdered by the physicians who drained 40% of his blood—five pints in total—to treat his sore throat and difficulty breathing.  (In between bloodletting sessions, they gave the former president enemas.  After a few hours of this, he probably wanted to die.)

It is amazing that humoral physiology remained the dominant theory in medical thinking until at least the Civil War, especially when you consider that physicians admitted that they had no idea what phlegm was—the definition of the word has changed in the last century.  Physicians freely admitted that they had never seen the imaginary substance, had no idea where it was located in the body, but still tried to remove excess phlegm by raising blisters in a patient’s throat by chemically burning the patient’s esophagus with the application of Spanish fly.  (Washington’s doctors did that, too.)

We know that Dürer was a believer because he left ample evidence.  The engraving at right, “Adam and Eve”, was produced by Dürer in 1504.  The four animals at the bottom represent the humors:  the elk for black bile, the ox for phlegm, the cat for yellow bile, and the rabbit for blood.  Remember, this was the sixteenth century, and artists firmly believed that if they used enough obscure iconography, eventually even art historians would be employable.

Dürer’s health declined in his forties, and once again, he left artistic clues as to what was bothering him.  The engraving at left, titled Melancholia, was done in 1514.  The winged angel is supposed to be the personification of melancholia.

From Dürer’s detailed account books, we know he was increasingly ill because he recorded every expense down to just a few stivers for enough firewood to heat his house for a day.  There are frequent payments to local doctors in Nuremberg, as well as to a few foreign doctors to whom he wrote for advice (including a sketch of the organs he believed were giving him problems). 

Unfortunately, none of those doctors had the foresight to keep any of those drawings since today they would be worth a fortune.  Dürer produced a drawing of a rhinoceros after reading about the animal.  Having never actually seen one, his sketch is…. interesting, but it recently sold for $866,500.  A Dürer sketch of a spleen would have to be worth at least half a million bucks.

Now, I’m just a poor dumb ‘ol country boy, but I have my own pet theory—admittedly probably crazy—about what killed Albrecht Dürer.  While I could be wrong, I don’t think the symptoms he mentioned in his letters match those of malaria.  While he certainly could have contracted the disease during one of his visits to Italy, he didn’t mention being sick while on those trips.  He also seemed to be healthy for years after his return.  While he was occasionally ill, his symptoms were different from those he exhibited in the years just before his death.

It was only after his trip to the Netherlands (he had wanted to see a whale that had been beached but, alas, it had washed away by the time he arrived) that he became sick with the symptoms that he complained about for the rest of this life.  As Dürer recorded, “A violent fever seized me, with great weakness, nausea, and headache…”

Now, I’ve been to the Netherlands in the summer and I don’t remember any mosquitoes with or without malaria, and since Dürer’s trip was in the winter—I just don’t think he caught malaria in Amsterdam, either.

Over the next couple of years, Dürer got progressively worse, all but giving up painting and focusing on his writing.  By March of 1528, he spent the entire month in bed, preparing a manuscript for publication.  On April 6, 1528, he died suddenly.

It is possible that Dürer left us a clue however, in a self-portrait from 1500.  Dürer stares directly at us (and, presumably, the mirror he used to create the work).  If you look carefully—or if you use Photoshop to greatly expand the image and count the pixels as I did—the width of the pupils in his eyes are different widths.  Now, this is not exactly a smoking gun, as many middle-aged men have this harmless condition, called anisocoria.  Usually, it means nothing.  (And yes, I spent some time in front of a mirror—I don’t have it.)

--> But, occasionally, it is a symptom of pancreatic encephalopathy, the symptoms of which match the illnesses that Dürer complained about after his 1521 trip to the Netherlands, and at least one of those drawings of organs that he sent to physicians was of a pancreas.  

The tomb of Dürer is covered by a large granite slab bearing the words of his friend, Willibarand Pirckheimer:  “Whatever was mortal of Albrecht Dürer is covered by this tomb.” While the words of the epitaph are touching, they are not correct.  Two days after his death, and before the burial, a lock of the artist’s hair was removed in commemoration.  Today, that lock of hair is securely sandwiched between two panes of glass and is on display at the Vienna Academy of Arts.

And today, scientists can do a pancreas stress analysis test from a hair sample.  I wonder if the folks in Vienna could be persuaded to part with a hair or two?

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