This Renaissance Painting Could Be the First (Accidental) Depiction of Breast Cancer

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Experts believe that breast cancer, just like other cancers, has been around for about as long as human beings have been alive. Skeletal remains and mummies that are over 2,000 years old have been diagnosed with various cancers posthumously. The earliest known case of breast cancer dates back to somewhere around the year 1600 BC in ancient Egypt.

However, for many years, people didn’t understand what cancer was. People thought it was caused by repressed sexual urges or curdled milk left in the ducts, or by a host of other ailments. Some believed it was contagious. And because the homemade cures, which ranged from castor oil to cauterization, rarely worked, the disease often made it to the late stages, when it began to be physically visible.

Photo: YouTube/Luigi Manfredi

Photo: YouTube/Luigi Manfredi

When it became visible, it caught the attention—and, it would appear, the imaginations—of the people. As with any mysterious and incurable ailment, there were thoughts and theories about it and plenty of curiosity surrounding the issue.

Michele di Rodolfo del Ghirlandai appears to be one of the people who was curious about this odd health issue. In the 16th century, he created a painting called “The Night,” which depicts a woman who, experts believe, has advanced breast cancer.

Photo: YouTube/Luigi Manfredi

Photo: YouTube/Luigi Manfredi

Raffaella Bianucci, from the University of Warwick, and her colleagues were studying breast iconography in art when they came across the painting and took a closer look at Michele di Rodolfo del Ghirlandai’s work.

Bianucci believes the piece of art depicts “malignant breast cancer in the central region of the left breast with progressive nipple retraction.”

This painting, along with a second, less obvious example also dating back to the 16th century, appears to be the first artistic representation of breast cancer in the history of mankind.

Check out the video below to see the full painting and see what you think about Bianucci’s diagnosis.

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Click “next” below to learn more about the ancient history of breast cancer.


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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?
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