The art of healing in Byzantium on display

Published 14.02.2015 01:33
The art of healing in Byzantium on display

Pera Museum presents the ‘Life is Short, Art Long: The Art of Healing in Byzantium,’ which examines the art and practice of healing in Byzantium from Roman times to the late Byzantine period. The exhibition will continue until April 25

The Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation Pera Museum is hosting an exhibition titled "Life is Short, Art Long: The Art of Healing in Byzantium" to shed light on the medical history of the world during its 10th year anniversary. Curated by Brigitte Pitarakis, the display explores the healers of antiquity from Apollo and Asklepios to the founders of rational medicine, Hippocrates and Dioscorides, as well as the healing methods of the Byzantines including faith, magic and rational medicine, healing and miracle centers in Constantinople as well as the roles of physicians and saints in medicine through icons, reliquaries, amulets, marble carvings, medical equipment, plants and herbs and medical and botanical manuscripts.

Health has been always one of the most important subjects for mankind. Studying a civilization through a perspective of their approach to the body in terms of health and illness reveals the depths of its identity. "Life is Short, Art Long: The Art of Healing in Byzantium" offers a brief glance to Byzantine civilization and its community through three traditional healing methods: Faith, magic and medicine. The display reveals the effects of the Byzantine Empire's ancient cultural heritage on religious and rational thinking as well as contemporary scientific developments and innovations around the Mediterranean. Moreover, the important role of the Byzantine Empire in passing down the secrets of art of healing to the future generations is emphasized through the exhibition as well.

The exhibition exposes that the belief that illnesses used to be caused by demons, which was a common thought based on the teachings of Hippocrates. This belief coexisted alongside a rational understanding of health and medicine. The display also explores the daily rituals conducted by physicians, saints and magicians in order to cleanse body and soul.

Religious images in Byzantine times

Representations of Christ, his miracles and the saints had the function of conveying the biblical story as well as teaching about saints and the Church calendar commemorating them. They also served as an accompaniment to prayer and veneration in church and in private worship. In addition to the conventional nimbus evoking divine grace, the main features of saints, their dress and their attributes, were individualized and consistently represented to allow the faithful to recognize and relate to as well as venerate. Each saint's dress and attributes identified the nature of his or her power. The bishops and deacons recall the recitation of the liturgy, warriors in full military attire do battle with the devil and physicians, their surgery instruments and medicine pots in hand, stand ready to heal the bodies and souls of the faithful.

Demons, symbols and the cosmos

Beliefs surrounding illness and healing in Byzantium stem from the myths, astrology and magic practiced around the Mediterranean by Jews, Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Greeks. Amulets were widely prescribed, even by medical treatises, against demonic invasion, thought to be a primary cause of illness. One also finds green jasper gemstones featuring the lion-headed serpent Chnoubis, hematite stones showing Herakles fighting the Nemean lion and octagonal rings invoking solar symbolism and resurrection that feature astral lions.

Wondrous cures in Constantinople

The shrines that created the glory of Constantinople through their lavish beauty were also repositories of precious relics and thus, sources of healing. Early on, the city was placed under the protection of the Virgin Mary, who sanctified the waters of numerous springs there. In addition to such all-encompassing healing places as the shrine of the physician saints Kosmas and Damian near Eyüp, there were also specialized shrines, like St. Artemios for curing male-oriented diseases and St. Anastasia for mental illness.

Fear of pain, surgery, hemorrhages and infection led many among the faithful to turn to the saints whose healing interventions were painless, immediate and free of charge. Expressions of thanksgiving after miraculous cures contributed to shrines' wealth and fame. Often, the imperial couple influenced devotional practices at healing shrines, as did Leo VI and Zoe, whose son Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (b. 905) was born after the intervention of the Virgin of Pege.

The medical art

Hippocrates was born on the Aegean island of Kos around 460 B.C., the golden era of ancient Greece. Celebrated as the "father of medicine," he developed a system of rational medicine in which supernatural precepts played a minimal role. Hippocrates characterized the substance of medicine as a "techne" (art) with distinct limits. The medical art requires particular skills that involve training, and the incurable is beyond the boundaries of this art.

The physician must not only have specialized knowledge of the body, but also a broad understanding of the workings of nature and the cosmos. Hippocratic medicine requires that physicians treat the patient as a whole, not merely its parts. The aim of therapeutic practices is to restore the body's natural balance, a peculiar kind of art. The first aphorism of Hippocrates declares that a lifetime would not be long enough to achieve perfection in this art.

The practice of rational medicine

Byzantine medical art was grounded in the Greco-Roman medicinal tradition transmitted by Hippocrates and Galen and new concepts introduced by such physicians as Oribasios of Pergamon, Aetios of Amida, Alexander of Tralles and Paul of Aegina. The 12th century ushered in a significant transfer of knowledge between Byzantium and the Arab and Persian worlds as well.

Men as well as women practiced medicine. Theoretical teaching was coupled with a practical internship in a hospital. Diagnosis relied on analysis of the pulse and urine. Diet and bathing were integral parts of remedies. External remedies included casts, ointments and eyewashes, while internal treatments ranged from pills, powders and oils to gargles, enemas and infusions.

Ophthalmological diseases, epilepsy, hernias and gout were among the most common afflictions. The Byzantines' successful system of hospitals performed more than 100 different surgical procedures, including mastectomy, aneurysmectomy and trepanation along with ear and nose reconstructions. Moreover, some surgical instruments of great utility are still used today.

Treatment with medicinal herbs

Knowledge of plants and the practice of healing are closely entwined. The toxic or hallucinogenic nature of some roots and the dangers associated with picking them conferred a mythical or magical character and power. Pedanius Dioscorides (ca. 40A.D. to 90 A.D.), a physician from Anazarbus,in Cilicia, described more than 500 plants and alimentary products, including medicinal uses, preparations and dosages in "De Materia Medica" (On Medical Substances). Those recorded included varieties from the Mediterranean basin and an array of prized exotic plants. The transmission of "De Materia Medica," including its translation into Arabic and Latin, was made possible through Byzantine manuscripts, the earliest surviving witnesses of the text.

Galen of Pergamon (ca. 129 A.D. to 216 A.D.), a physician and surgeon, employed medicinal plants individually and as complex concoctions devised for specific therapies. His "theriac" (antidote) for Emperor Marcus Aurelius consisted of more than 70 ingredients, among them opium. His pharmacopoeia also covered cosmetics and commotics.

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