September 2020

OUTSIDE THE OR

Eye on Art
Eye disease in art Bruegel’s elegiac masterpiece of realism


by Vincent deLuise, MD


Bruegel the Elder, Pieter. “The Blind Leading the Blind.” 1568. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.
Accessed Jan. 28, 2020 via public domain/Wikimedia Commons.

In this column, “Eye on Art,” Vincent deLuise, MD, explores the intersection of medicine and art.

An iconic example of eye disease in art is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s monumental painting “The Blind Leading the Blind” (Dutch: “De Parabel der Blinden”).
This 1568 masterpiece is a jewel in the magnificent Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, Italy. Bruegel (ca. 1525–1569), who lived and worked in Brabant in Habsburg, the Netherlands, was a master of the Northern Renaissance and a formative influence on Dutch Golden Age painting.
The painting “The Blind Leading the Blind” is a brilliant example of Bruegel’s genius ability to paint a narrative, both lyrically and metaphorically, with exquisite precision and detail. This piece has been analyzed for the ophthalmic findings of the various protagonists.
Among those who have published on possible ocular conditions is Zeynel Karcioglu, MD, who opines an ophthalmic diagnosis for five of the six men in the painting.1
The first man (from the right) does not have eyes visible to comment. The second man has had bilateral exenterations. The third demonstrates corneal leukomas, and the fourth may display bulbar atrophy. The fifth is visually impaired and seemingly photophobic. Finally, the sixth may have pemphigus or bullous pemphigoid.
The physician-poet William Carlos Williams wrote a poem about this painting, bringing us full circle with the intersection of medicine and the arts. The poem reads, in part:2

This horrible but superb painting
the parable of the blind
without a red

in the composition shows a group
of beggars leading
each other diagonally downward

across the canvas
from one side
to stumble finally into a bog

References
1. Karcioglu ZA. Ocular pathology in The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind and other paintings by Pieter Bruegel. Surv Ophthalmol. 2002;47:55–62.
2. Williams WC. The Parable of the Blind. Emory University. english.emory.edu/classes/paintings&poems/blind.html. Accessed July 13, 2020.

Contact
deLuise: vdeluisemd@gmail.com

Eye disease in art Bruegel’s elegiac masterpiece of realism Eye disease in art Bruegel’s elegiac masterpiece of realism
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